Readers share their thoughts on chemical names and rights for workers, and continue an explosive conversation

Employment protections

I have close-hand and recent experience of severe discrimination, bullying and harassment of a postgraduate student at a major UK university. The Academic Parity Movement proposes new guidelines that institutions can use to make academic environments safer and to resolve bullying cases, however in my experience turkeys (especially academic ones) don’t vote for Christmas.

The simple solution is suggested but not specified by your editorial: if parliament defined postgraduate students as ‘workers’ under the Employment Rights Act 1996, then they would not only gain the basic protections of employment, but also allow postgraduates to pursue claims for discrimination and harassment through the Employment Tribunal, a route not open to them at present.

Richard Graham
Matlock, UK

Systematic support

Kat Day makes an interesting case for reverting to traditional names for chemicals. Admittedly, systematic names can be hopelessly cumbersome but the snag with teaching older names in schools is that in examinations candidates are not allowed to use a smartphone to ask their digital assistant. I accept that there is a good case for some open book examinations but that is not the same as an open phone exam. Almost certainly a digital assistant could come up with a better answer, more quickly than most candidates. Part of the answer may well be to change the nature of examinations but this government will not go anywhere near that - they want facts, facts, facts.

Incidentally, it is not true that older names are invariably shorter – dephlogisticated muriatic acid air may well be more interesting than chlorine gas, but it’s not shorter.

Peter Borrows CSci CChem FRSC
Amersham Old Town, UK

I have taught chemistry for over 40 years and found that I get students’ attention by explaining the patterns in the subjects. For inorganic chemistry the periodic table is essential to develop an understanding of structure and reactions. For organic chemistry this understanding comes through the Iupac system of nomenclature. I only use trivial names for compounds to illustrate where they came from, which has no useful logic. As far as chemistry is concerned, they are trivial.

The Iupac system is international with obvious advantages for chemistry across the world. In addition it links names to structures, formulae and therefore functional groups and reactions. I disagree with Kat Day’s conclusion to return to trivial names. Abandoning the Iupac system would baffle students and reduce the number taking up the subject. Returning to trivial names would be like going back to the old system of currency and its nonsensical conversion systems.

Alan Jefferson CChem FRSC
Via email

The Halifax explosion

Chemjobber’s article on the explosive power of nitration, including the 1921 Oppau ammonium nitrate explosion, reminded me of the 1917 Halifax Nova Scotia explosion. This is estimated to have involved the equivalent of 2900 tonnes of TNT and thought to have been the largest conventional explosion on record.

Two ships collided on the approach to Halifax and the TNT, picric acid and guncotton explosives in a munition ship were ignited by fire. Over 2000 people were killed, and photographs of the devastation on land are reminiscent of photographs of Hiroshima after the detonation of the even more powerful fission explosive in August 1945. One of the concerns in designing the early atomic bombs was whether or not the explosion would be as effective as a chemical explosion, such as at Halifax, where the pressure wave is generated by rapidly produced gases. No such gaseous products are produced in an atomic bomb, but GI Taylor showed that the atomic bomb would create its own pressure wave by extreme and rapid heating of the surrounding air. 

Rhobert Lewis FRSC
Brecon, UK

Crystallised knowledge

I was recently privileged to speak at the funeral of my friend and PhD colleague Gerry Smith. I made mention of an occasion when one of Gerry’s reactions required di-tert-butyl ether as the solvent. As he returned from the stores with an ancient Winchester of said solvent, he commented that ethers tended to form solid, very explosive peroxides over time. Careful removal of the dust of ages from the bottle showed much precipitated material and it was duly exploded in a fully controlled fashion on the neighbouring flat roof.

Thus I was able to answer correctly the question raised in On the spot, albeit with some updating of the method of disposal.

Peter Baker CChem FRSC
Prestwood, UK

I know it’s a serious matter but Mark Foreman’s letter about diisopropyl ether disposal made me laugh hysterically. In 1973 I was a naïve, probably badly trained 17-year-old technician at the Southwark Public Analyst Department in London, UK. I had a glass Winchester bottle of the stuff in the cupboard under my bench with a yellow solid in it. It was dated 1937 and the glass top had sheared off, perhaps luckily making it impossible to open. Once a month I cleaned out the cupboard, taking out the bottles and putting them back.

Some years later a manager decided to have a clear out of old chemicals and contracted a chemical disposal company. I carried the bottle with others down to the yard where the waste chemicals were assembled. The said waste chemical company took all the bottles except for mine, for which they called the bomb squad. A bomb disposal expert with a full ‘Michelin man’ style protective suit, helmet and gloves came and took it away in a thick metal sand filled bin.

I would hope that technicians are better trained these days and housekeeping is more rigorous.

Brian Mclean MChemA CChem FRSC
Worcester, UK

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In the article ‘Black’s balance’ (Chemistry World, July 2021, p62), we incorrectly stated Joseph Black moved to Edinburgh 100 years later than he did. He in fact moved there in 1752. Thank you to Kari Black for bringing this to our attention.