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LSD: A Historical Flashback

You may have heard, “Chemistry is just like cooking. Just don’t lick the spoon.” Yet, before safety gear like gloves and goggles became mandatory in the laboratory, chemists sometimes “licked the spoon” without realizing it. And sometimes such exposure was met with unexpected consequences. Take for example, the story of the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann.

Creepy, crawly chemistry

Source: lab work gets frustrating, I ask myself: can’t there be an easier way? I’ll hazard a guess that if you’re a chemist like me, you’re inured to the frustration of traditional synthesis. Often, it is the most well-behaved chemical reactions that get you at the end. Yes, I’m talking about that scale-up: that step you promised your adviser would be “facile,” as well as those extra TLCs you could, should, and wish you had done before you started your column. I’m of the opinion that many of the synthetic struggles in the early stages of grad school are essentially self-inflicted. It always cracks me up when I hear someone vigorously complaining about running a notoriously nasty reaction. Honestly, did you really think deciding tackling a McMurry or Skraup wouldn’t cause you just a little bit of sweat? I guess many young grad students, like me, have a burning desire to prove their stripes en route to their secret aspiration: becoming the most interesting man woman in chemistry.

I’m currently in the midst of working to overcome a synthetic hurdle of my own. Without getting into its provenance or name, I’ll say that I am quite determined to successfully duke it out with this particular reaction. Last week, while I was wrapping up in lab and was in the midst of drawing up the battle plans for the next day’s synthetic attack, I had a rather painful realization. Washing and prepping glassware can be a mind-numbing task and as I stood there essentially doing my dishes, I recalled a recent high impact paper detailing the biosynthesis of quantum dots in earthworms.

Science vs. 11-year-olds, round 2

For the second straight year, Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science is hosting a competition called the Flame Challenge. The goal is for scientists to answer a question about nature in a way that is interesting and informative to an 11-year-old. In fact, 11-year-old schoolchildren are the judges (although professional scientists screen submissions for technical accuracy). The name of the challenge comes from last year’s inaugural question: What is a flame? This year, the question digs even deeper: What is time?

I have to admit, it sounds really hard. Unlike last year’s question, this year’s question has an added degree of difficulty because it probes the cutting edge of physicists’ understanding of the universe. The winner of last year’s Flame Challenge was a seven-and-a-half minute animation in which atoms are depicted by Legos and chemical reactions by boxing fights. The video is punctuated by a short, tuneful rock song that summarizes the physics and terminology that describe a flame. I thought the video was great once it got past its not-so-eloquent description of atoms (“Everything is made with tiny things called atoms, and these things are the building blocks that make up everything“). Dare I admit that I might have even learned a thing or two about pyrolysis and chemiluminscence? Still, I’m a sucker for infographics, so my vote would have gone to this finalist.