I would suggest that many of the issues cited as influencing women’s decisions to stay in academic science ( Chemistry World , August 2008, p8) are equally relevant to men’s decisions: the extreme competition for lectureships; fighting for funding; and long antisocial hours. These affect all new academics equally.   

There is intrinsic bias in the employment system for women as defined recently by the government in its so-called equality law. Women will be entitled to a year’s maternity leave, men get two week’s paternity. Let us be crystal clear that this is not equality and rather reinforces the idea that women must be the carers for children. If the law was ’parents get one year of paid parental leave to divide as they see fit with the mother having x weeks as a minimum requirement (for health reasons)’ then this would be equal. Why is that relevant to the issues here? It would force a change in how ’stages of career’ are thought about in academia. If both male and female academics were equally likely to take parental leave, I bet we’d see some changes in how career metrics are measured. That isn’t limited to academia; all careers would probably experience something similar. 

As for the cut-throat nature of chemistry research - I don’t think it is just chemistry. With increasing competition for funding and lectureships or fellowships, everyone will have to get more competitive. I suspect things will get worse but the answer is more funding and a variety of positions (lectureships emphasising teaching over research for example) across the board. If the government truly wants to increase the science literacy of the UK with more science graduates then it will have to start paying for it from the top down. 

K Haxton MRSC
Keele, UK 


In Spinach may cut stomach ulcer risk  (Chemistry World, June 2008, p22) Joel Petersson at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, is quoted as saying ’There are other much safer ways [than mouth wash] of blocking the production of the sulfur-containing compounds in the mouth.’ 

What might these be? For example, should one use neat toothpaste? I currently use a mouthwash product. I think some suggestion on alternatives would be helpful. I would like to be informed in my choice of hygiene products for my family. 

K Forster CChem MRSC
Warrington, UK 

Joel Petersson responds: The sulfur-containing compounds produced by oral bacteria can cause bad breath, and one way to prevent this is zinc. In Sweden there are several different forms (mouth wash/tablet etc). The zinc ions bind the volatile compounds to reduce bad breath. In this way, the use of zinc-based products can be safer than using products that eliminate the total oral flora. (Since studies have shown several important functions attributed to the oral flora, including bioactivation of nitrate to nitrite). 


The letter by Geoff Glasby was interesting (Chemistry World , August 2008, p36), but I think it had a few factual errors. Acetone, I think, is only used to make cordite [and not TNT, as stated]. It is needed as a cosolvent to make the guncotton, gtn and petroleum jelly mixture plastic. It is removed from the cords, once they are extruded and recycled. The Haber process, I thought used an iron/molybdenum catalyst/promotor, when was uranium introduced? Chile saltpetre, caliche, is NaNO3 and because it is deliquescent cannot be used in gunpowder. The Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey, used it to make nitric acid for their glycerol nitration process. Haber was responsible for the idea of using chlorine as a war gas, for which his wife never forgave him and which caused her to commit suicide. 

N Nicolson CChem MRSC
London, UK 

In his letter (Chemistry World , August 2008, p36), Geoff Glasby describes Fritz Haber’s work during the first world war on developing the industrial scale conversion of ammonia into nitric acid and the devastating starvation caused by the resulting lack of ammonium sulfate as fertiliser. However, this latter was a tragic but unintentional consequence; the real infamy in Haber’s wartime work was his willingness to develop chemical warfare using agents deliberately intended to cause death and injury on a massive scale and in an especially horrible form. He personally participated in the massive releases of chlorine gas near Ypres in April 1915, which began the chemical warfare campaign. This drove his first wife Clara, herself a PhD chemist, to commit suicide at what she regarded as ’an abomination of science and an act of barbarism’. Haber’s actions in developing and proudly justifying chemical warfare caused much damage to his international reputation and this, coupled with the Jewish ancestry which drove this zealous German patriot from his native land, appears to be the most likely reason that he died ’a broken man’.  

David Taylor CChem CSci FRSC
Pen-ybont, UK 


Last month’s crossword gives ’brassic’ as a synonym for poverty. In fact, this is a mishearing of ’boracic’, short for ’boracic lint’, meaning ’skint’ in Cockney rhyming slang.

Since boracic lint, surgical lint soaked in concentrated boracic acid and glycerine, is not commonly used nowadays, the abbreviated slang is unfortunately bereft of its hidden reference and is just known to signify ’broke’.

It would be interesting to hear of other chemical terms used in a similar way.

L Hearn MRSC
London, UK 


The article on the Erlenmeyer flask (Chemistry World , July 2008, p79) brought back to mind my experiences as an industrial chemist during the 1950s. I worked for Stewarts and Lloyds and we used apparatus which did not appear to be in general use, and possibly was specially made. 

Our titration flasks differed from the usual Erlenmeyer - they began to taper out from the neck but then the taper reversed so that the diameter of the base was about half of that at the widest point. The idea was that when titrating one looked through the open neck and the thickness of the liquid layer was greater than that in a conventional Erlenmeyer, thus allowing the use of less indicator. 

This set me thinking about other unusual items. Instead of the usual 250ml beaker, we used 300ml, with a wider base so that evaporation was quicker. Even more unusual, because our boiler engineers insisted on hardness being quoted in grains per gallon, we had 18.5ml pipettes made so that there were no awkward calculations (it must be remembered that there were no computers or electronic calculators in those days - the arrival of a mechanical calculator in about 1954 was a major advance). 

However, during this time I started to get some very unusual results when titrating. Having eliminated other possibilities I examined the burette and found that there were two number 2s, i.e. the readings went 0, 1, 2, 2, 3, 4 etc. Admittedly we were using grade B apparatus for routine work but I had always assumed that there must be some kind of a template for burette markings, so am at a loss to explain this. 

Do any other (older) chemists have experience of unusual apparatus? 

J D Wheatley, CChem FRSC
by email 


David Jones’ article on silly putty (Chemistry World , August 2008, p88) reminded me of the occasion, many years ago, when I visited Polysar, the synthetic rubber and polymer corporation in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. As a guest I was given a novelty keepsake to take home. This consisted of three dense polymer balls, each differently coloured but apparently identical in all other respects: the same size, approximately equal mass and the same rubbery feel when compressed between the fingers. When dropped from waist height, one hit the ground with a dull thud and did not bounce at all, one bounced 50 per cent and the third had a coefficient of restitution of more than 0.9. 
I was, and still am, intrigued. Can a polymer chemist describe the difference in composition of these polymers and, more importantly, explain the relationship between the chemical structure and the observed behaviour when subjected to short-term shock? 

R Dell CChem FRSC
Abingdon, UK