2004: how was it 4 U?

December is a month for reflection, a time to ponder the highs and lows of the year just gone, and to help facilitate such ruminations I have decided to inaugurate two new awards.  The Phlogiston Medal celebrates the ’best new theory of questionable veracity’, while the Claudio Ranieri Cup recognises the ’most inspired act of tinkering’ performed during the year just past.

Before we reveal the Phlogiston recipient, however, let us look at my favourite runner-up, which is actually away from chemistry. Though author Terry Deary’s suggestion back in May that the boomerang originated in Yorkshire may ultimately prove unfounded, I have to say it strikes me as pretty plausible. In fact, given the legendary parsimony of Yorkshire folk, I suspect they would have been tickled pink to find something that was so eminently reusable for such little effort. Even the very word boomerang sounds like it could have originated in one of the many sullen dialects from that side of the Pennines. But then as a Lancashire lad I suppose it’s just possible I’m a bit biased...

Anyhow, on to our actual winner: Caslav Brukner and colleagues get the nod for their February paper Quantum entanglement in time. Now I have to admit that my understanding of advanced quantum physics is such that I thought ’Bell’s inequalities’ were something to do with blended whisky, and so it’s hard for me to fully judge the ins and outs of the paper. But if they’re right and Einstein’s ’spooky action at a distance’ is mirrored on a chronological level this must have ramifications for chemists.

It may have implications for the mechanism of crystallisation, provide insight into spectroscopic anomalies and will almost certainly explain why you invariably get an embarrassing itch immediately after getting your second hand into the glove box. If correct, then cause and effect will be reversibly entwined, arcing back on each other like Deary’s boomerangs; temporal palimpsests can be inverted, rejections will appear before submission and hangovers before the conference dinner (actually, come to think of it I’ve already experienced the latter two, so maybe there’s something in it). Who knows where it will all lead? Well, if they’re correct, we all know already - we just don’t realise it, that’s all.

The Ranieri award goes to the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in recognition of their bold decision, back in May, to change the instructions to applicants when writing summaries of their proposed work on the main application form. Understandably, this section has always been aimed at the lay person - after all that helps when justifying spending to the tax payer. But tinkering has now meant the target has changed from the ’non-specialist reader’ to ’an interested 14 year old’. Nothing wrong with that of course, except it does raise the question of just how do you most efficiently get information over to an interested 14 year old nowadays?

The answer is simple; that’s right, you have to text it to them. So I guess that now means we can look forward to application forms littered with terse SMS gibberish, and indeed this means that a whole series of chemical abbreviations will have to be invented to go alongside the usual. Current buzzwords could include sad (self assembled) and envy (environmentally friendly).

Away from grant applications this will start to become the norm though the fact that chemistry already relies heavily on short symbols could create problems. Does the person who has just texted you really mean ’see you’ or are they giving you the answer ’copper’? If you get the message ’RUL8?’ does this mean they’re enquiring where you’ve got to, or bragging that they’ve just made a seriously sterically-crowded ruthenium complex? When they wrote lof was it a typo of lol (’laughs out loud’) or are they trying to tell you the lab’s on fire?