Readers reminisce, consider the limits of trust and continue the debate on chemical nomenclature
A million meanings
I was interested in the ‘On the spot’ item that depicts what is described as Natural Organic Cat Litter. A quick look on the internet indicated that this indeed was organic as defined in chemistry textbooks. This contrasts with my recently purchased ‘organic’ slug pellets containing ferric phosphate, which when I was a student would have been regarded as inorganic! I suppose this is just another example of how the use of words changes with time and one word can have several meanings. A similar change seems to have happened for the symbol for a million. In science a million would be ‘M’ (for example, MW for megawatt, a million Watts) but the media almost always use ‘m’ when talking about millions of pounds money, for example, £1m, which could be interpreted as 0.1p – one thousandth of a pound. Such is progress in clarity and consistency.
Alan Jefferson’s closing remark in his letter on the subject of chemical naming conventions was about the old system of currency and ‘its nonsensical conversion systems’. This is fighting talk! The British pound sterling of 20 shillings was divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 16, 20, 24, 30, 40, 60, 80 and 120, and more if you count the halfpennies in use at the time. Our current pound can manage 2, 4, 5, 10, 20 and 50. Our currently accepted linear and area measures (yards and acres – yes, they are still in use) can manage factors of 2, 3, 5, 7 and 11.
As for chemical names, we obviously must use both the traditional names for brevity and a systematic name where greater clarity or specificity is required. One must be pragmatic. But there is no good reason to use Iupac names, where they seem to want to impose ‘sulfur’ on the British and ‘aluminium’ on US Americans.
I’m happy to report that I am a prolific writer of chemical answers on the social media site, Quora, and continue to use the correct British spelling of ‘sulphur’ there. No one has complained.
Colin John Cook MRSC
The recent letter ‘Trivial Pursuit’ compared the advantages of using trivial rather than systematic nomenclature in describing biochemical processes such as the Krebs Cycle. This reminded me of a story I heard many years ago from one of Hans Krebs’ former close associates. He was once asked at a conference why he thought that the metabolic cycle which he discovered was named the Krebs cycle rather than it’s more chemically accurate (but more long-winded) systematic alternative.
He replied that Krebs is a brief monosyllabic description whereas if his name had been Schickelgruber, the cycle would never have borne his name.
Geoffrey Gibbons FRSC
Stoke Poges, UK
The two Anthony King articles appearing in the November 2021 issue of Chemistry World on the antivirals ivermectin and molnupiravir for treatment of Covid-19 create something of a dilemma for all of us doing our best to ‘follow the science’. The first article informs us that there is no evidence that ivermectin has any benefit against Covid-19 and proceeds to warn us that we should not view any such studies from a position of trust: ‘trust is toxic in research’ and that starting from a position of trust ‘is one of the biggest things that needs to change’. The second describes Merck & Co’s molnupiravir, speaking of it as impressive against Covid-19 and effective in reducing hospitalisation and death. However, no mention is made of the ‘trust’ caution from the previous article. In view of the recently published investigation by the British Medical Journal concerning serious flaws in Pfizer’s application for emergency approval of its mRNA vaccine, should we not be equally cautious of Merck’s [rather expensive] molnupiravir? Sometimes, it’s easier to follow the money than the science.
George Duncan MRSC
A couple of letters took me back over 60 years when I was at school and a member of a local science club of about 15 teenagers – with adult supervision completely absent. We dabbled in all aspects of science, learning about the new technologies of the time – semiconductors being particularly popular. However one experiment that particularly impressed me was a gas chromatograph in a coiled glass tube filled with Tide detergent. This had no temperature control. I can’t remember what the carrier gas was but it had a hydrogen flame detector and was able to separate a mixture of organic solvents. Five or six years later gas liquid chromatography was still in its relative infancy when I was at university. Cutting edge stuff at the time for school kids and all done in kitchens, garages or sheds.
I am not aware that such opportunities exist now, and may be considered too dangerous, but they sparked a lifetime interest in science and experimentation in a generation of youngsters. Happy days!
Brian Waters FRSC
Reading Michael Baldwin’s letter on basic gas chromatography equipment would bring back memories to many retired RSC members.
My own experience with early gas chromatography (vapour phase chromatography) was at ICI Billingham as a 19-year old summer student assistant to Geoffrey Bond (later professor at Brunel University) in 1957. His heterogeneous catalysis work required a formidable piece of equipment.
Some ordinary careers and experiences might interest many ‘oldies’ just as topics such as PhD stress, women in science and LGBTQ+ experiences interest younger members. Perhaps you could offer us some space on your letters page.
Alan Dillarstone FRSC
Response from comment and careers editor Emma Pewsey: Members are welcome to submit letters about their careers. Our Last retort column is also open to readers of all ages to share their stories of lab life and working in chemistry. If you’d like to propose an article for Last retort, please email a brief summary of what you’d like to write about to firstname.lastname@example.org
Chemistry World welcomes letters, which should be concise (normally fewer than 300 words) and timely. Those selected for publication are subject to editing for clarity and length. Letters should be marked ‘for publication’ and sent to email@example.com
We do not routinely acknowledge letters.
A precision of one part in 108 is of course 10µg in 1kg, not 10mg as we incorrectly stated in the last Classic Kit (Chemistry World, December 2021, p62).
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