Readers call for international cooperation and near-miss reporting  and less emphasis on deriving equations

Science without borders

Any invasion, by any country, be it by the US or Russia, must always be condemned. We are, however, concerned about the negative effects that the tragic Russian–Ukrainian conflict has on science.

The scientific community must continue to be truly international. Unfortunately, there have been calls for a boycott of Russian scientists. Among others, German and Finnish governments have frozen scientific and educational contacts with Russia. This is unacceptable, as would be a hypothetical punishment or isolation of American scientists for the horrors of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The cultural community is experiencing similar negative developments: great musicians Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko were fired in Germany and Italy for their refusal to energetically denounce their government (Netrebko later published a statement distancing herself from Russia, in an attempt to get her job back). This is reminiscent of the times of McCarthyism, when scientists were punished for not fighting communism energetically enough. Add to this the so-called China Initiative of the US government, which searched for ‘Chinese spies’ among scientists, a witch-hunt that has broken lives and scientific careers.

Direct contact between scientists across national borders is crucial to the scientific enterprise; the global pool of scientific knowledge is the accumulated contributions of many scientists around the world. Because of the nature of science, it is important that the international scientific community remains open – and scientific journals and conferences are open to scientists from all countries.

At difficult times like those that we are currently experiencing, scientists should maintain open doors, even where diplomats have closed theirs.

Nils Stenseth
Oslo, Norway

Artem Oganov FRSC
Moscow, Russia 

Thermodynamics on my mind

I enjoyed the letter by Rhobert Lewis on the driving forces for chemical reactions. Thermodynamics is a powerful and fundamental part of chemistry. Individual atoms and molecules, however, have not attended a course on the subject. Looking back on my university instruction and the contents of standard textbooks there seemed to be an overemphasis on the derivation of key equations. Personally I’m happy that the likes of Helmholtz, Gibbs, Boltzmann and Maxwell have derived those equations correctly. What always seemed to be missing was a thorough discussion of their application at the atomic and molecular level in terms of energy transfers and so on.

Many a time the Gibbs Free Energy term has popped into my head during a run in my Cotswold locality and I’m still not sure I completely understand it.

Roger Newman FRSC
Dursley, UK

Triangulating safety

There is a more fundamental reason for the reporting of near misses than simply that they ‘might have caused serious injury’ (Chemistry World, May 2022, p6). As a contractor who has worked in the oil and gas industry it was driven home to us that almost all accidents are preceded by at least one near miss.

Heinrich’s accident triangle suggests that for every serious accident there are 30 minor accidents and 300 near misses. While the specific numbers and applicability of the triangle have been hotly debated, there is little doubt that near miss reporting is a valuable leading safety indicator. Near miss reporting promotes proactive behaviour and is much less likely to be under-reported than a report of an actual accident.

Richard Graham
Matlock, UK

Clarity first

As a non-native English speaker myself, I can sympathise with the plight of those struggling to publish their work in English-language journals, and I certainly agree that referees could be more helpful with respect to suggestions for linguistic improvement. However, the sad truth is that some manuscripts are so poorly written that detailing all, or even most, changes that need to be made would just be too time-consuming. It is, in my view, unreasonable to ask this of a referee. The result would likely be more people declining invitations to review, thus further overburdening those of us who do agree to do this job. I understand how frustrating it must be to have your paper rejected because of the language and not the science, but if a referee cannot understand your paper, in a reasonable amount of time, how are they to judge whether the science is sound?

Paulo Teixeira MRSC
Lisboa, Portugal

Catalysing debate

Iron oxides and hydroxides have been used for some time as catalysts for the selective reduction of nitro compounds to amines, using hydrazine. Moderate conditions are used, such as a maximum temperature of 100°C (in aqueous media) or lower (for example, in methanol): it is much less messy, and more controllable than the traditional iron–acid process. It also works in alkaline media – for example, nitrophenols are readily reduced as their sodium salts. A convenient procedure is to start with a suspension of chalk in the reaction medium and add ferric chloride (or ferrous sulphate) solution, so that the catalyst is precipitated on the chalk surface. This makes equipment easier to clean than if charcoal is used, especially if it is larger than, say, a 20 litre flask.

The interesting point of using a catalyst of chalcopyrite nanocrystals is its selectivity, and that the catalyst is promoted by light; however, I suspect that, once the temperature exceeded about 50°C, reaction would proceed without further irradiation, possibly more slowly.

On a laboratory scale the use of hydrazine hydrate is certainly more convenient than catalytic hydrogenation, the production of hydrogen and its use in preparing hydrazine having been relegated to large-scale manufacturers: also, in a plant, the risk of a substantial hydrogen leak is reduced.

A F Webb
Haverhill, UK


We mistakenly failed to provide a clue for 24 down in June’s cryptic crossword. Well done to those of you who solved the rest of the grid despite this omission.