Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Long time, no blog

It’s been a worryingly long time since I last blogged properly (I can’t really count uploading Reactions interviews, guest blog posts, or Stu’s Twitter updates as proper posts!), but here I am again.

So, what shall I blog about? Now that we have a proper journal, a lot of things I would blog about seem to end up as what we call ‘content’. Interesting blog posts I read elsewhere end up as Blogroll material, good articles we spot in other journals get snapped up as Research Highlights or even News and Views articles. Matters of great import to the chemistry community are mulled over in Editorials. [Not that I write all of these, of course, but we’re one big happy team knocking ideas around]

There are a couple of blogs out there that I’ve recently discovered and would like to share, however. One is Chemjobber, who does a great job summarising the state of the chemistry job market based on the ACS careers website and C&EN. Chemjobber has also written some excellent posts about the Sheri Sangji/UCLA case, where a “research associate died of burns suffered from a t-butyl lithium fire”. This made a lot of news when the incident first occurred, but it’s good to see the details of the aftermath being followed.

Lab safety is something that really needs to be taken seriously, and I’m quite pleased that I did my PhD in a department with a strong culture of taking care to do things safely. Seeing pictures on various group website of people in the lab without safety specs or labcoats always makes me shudder a little bit. Is your eyesight worth the slight discomfort of wearing those safety glasses? I think so.

Moving away from the serious, the other blog I’ve discovered is NCBI ROFL, run by “two Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students at UC Berkeley”. They selflessly search PubMed for “real articles with funny subjects”. For instance, here’s what not to do with HF.

So there we go – sorry if the juxtaposition between the tragic and comic was too jarring, but they’re both just off the (opposite ends of the) scale of what I consider for Blogroll. Hopefully now that I’ve eased myself gently back into the blogging waters, things will flow more regularly now!


Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)


  1. Report this comment

    Linda Glass said:

    I just stumbled across you blog and enjoyed it.

    I am a high school basic chem teacher in a small private school. Is this the appropriate place to ask for advice? Working with bright kids, they ask questions, for which I don’t have the answers. Previously, I would go to grad students at Univ. of CA, Irvine for explanations for some things, but the grad students only knew the ‘party line’ facts, nothing outside the ‘pre-prepared’ questions of chem ed., or nothing so basic, it had never occurred to them – like why does cyclopropane form instead of propane? Why do some acids eat through glass, and some eat through plastic? (Obviously, I am not a chem wiz myself, because maybe the answers are obvious to someone whose natural subject is chem.)

    So the advice I am asking is whether you have suggestions as to where the students (and I) can ask our questions (besides Ask Jeeves or Wiki Answers) throughout the school year. Who has the time and patience for this?


  2. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    Hi Linda,

    Thanks for reading. I’m afraid I don’t know of any sites like that myself – although in addition to Ask Jeeves and Wiki Answers, there’s also Yahoo Answers.

    Do our readers have any tips?

  3. Report this comment

    Carmen said:

    Hi Linda,

    My first choice would be Chemical Forums, the brainchild of Mitch Andre Garcia, a recent UC Berkeley PhD. Those boards are pretty active, and there’s even a forum specifically dedicated to high school level stuff where you can post your questions.

    There are also several “ask-a-scientist” websites I found on Google, such as these two.

    Hope that was helpful. Good luck, and thanks for going the extra mile in your chemistry teaching!

  4. Report this comment

    Zorr said:

    Hey Linda,

    I read your comment and was shocked at the idea that a science student would not know the answer to such a reasonably basic and honest question… and then not bother to find out the answer to fill the hole in their own knowledge.

    I am currently a postgrad student in New Zealand and, to be honest, I am not an ideal student – I have had a lot of issues in the past and am lucky that I have been given the chance to redeem myself. However, it seems to me that it should be a fairly basic personal attribute of any scientist is a desire to know and insatiable curiosity.

    Also, your comment about whether the answers are obvious to someone with a deep backgrounding in chemistry – that should be correct. However, if the person can’t actually even provide you with a rough answer, then do they actually know? The biggest problem I have always found with communicating chemistry ideas is that there are many potential explanations for any one phenomena and to do it justice I feel compelled to cover all the salient points.

    Anyway, personally, I would only trust AskJeeves and WikiAnswers only as much as I trust Wikipedia. A good place to start an investigation, but never a good place to end one. I have always been prepared to help answer peoples questions and take the time out of my day to find the answers because they intrigue me.

    So now that I have rambled a bit, and considering I don’t know quite how your interactions with the University works, a couple of salient points:

    1) Don’t just go and ask the “grad students” – I think it is quite important here to find those who are willing to help and work with them.

    2) Develop email correspondences with the students because it will give them time to provide the answers when they have it spare.

    3) It may involve more reading, but when using AskJeeves and WikiAnswers, ask for some source material suggestions as well. Despite the information age we live in, textbooks are still a wealth of knowledge.

    4) With regard #3, see what you can potentially do about borrowing books from the University.

    Anyway, just a few ideas. I don’t know if I have helped in the end or not but hopefully you find something useful in amongst my ramblings.

  5. Report this comment

    RM said:

    Wikipedia also has a Reference Desk.

    And let’s not overlook actual reference desks at public and university libraries. The librarians there tend to be more than happy to help you track down books and information to answer even the most esoteric question.

  6. Report this comment

    Valentin Ananikov said:

    Hi Linda,

    I think that a blog or forum of school teachers would be a best place. You may share your questions and experience with those, who have the same problems as you. You may think of organizing such a forum, if there is none.

    Modern grad students are interested in complicated things; you may ask them about 50-step natural product synthesis, protein folding, Nobel prizes, etc. Simpler things are of no use, thus become quickly forgotten.

    From my school years I remember that I liked very much our physics teacher. From time to time she replied “I don’t know” to our questions. Other teachers were always trying to reply with something, even if they didn’t know the answer.

    It was soooo much motivating to find the answer myself in such a case – to find out something that even the teacher doesn’t know. I believe, in teaching it is important to say “I don’t know” (but not too often, of course).

  7. Report this comment

    Linda Glass said:

    Wow! Thank you for your support and suggestions, Carmen, Zorr, RM, and Valentin (and for the ‘forum’, Neil)! I WILL check out specific grad students to see if this can be a resource during the school year, either through a blog (Edublog?) that my students can all read or an email correspondence.

    I do realize lots of people (grad students, instructors, etc., may have little time for this, but I may find one or more who does/do have time on occasions. (It hadn’t occurred to me that if you were doing graduate work in an area, the basics would have left your mind. I just figured maybe some people skipped that step in a depthful way.)

    Thank you again,