Books in Scientia – Much Ado About (Practically) Nothing

Title and author

Much Ado About Practically Nothing by David Fisher

What’s it about?

Nobel gases, the group 18(VIII) elements. What you will not find in this book is any information on the most often quoted uses of noble gases, cooling and lighting. The author focuses on isotope geochemistry for dating of rocks, meteorites and whatnot.

What are the good bits?

I’m a little bit ashamed to say that even as a chemist (who should know better), I thought the noble gases were a teensy bit boring and this book might be too. It wasn’t! And it’s proper good, not just good because I thought it was going to be bad and then it wasn’t.

What are the not-so-good bits?

There are a couple of places where in my opinion, the author is overly critical on a personal level, of other scientists. It left me feeling a bit awkward and uncomfortable.

What does it say on p54 line 14?

I heard Bohr lecture once. Or rather I saw him lecture; I heard very little and understood absolutely nothing. His head was bowed and turned almost obsessively to the blackboard, on which he wrote tiny, barely legible mathematical symbols, and he whispered to the blackboard in a thick Danish accent.

My 3rd year thermodynamics lecturer must have seen Bohr lecture too, and modelled his lecturing style on the Dane…

Who should read it?

I’d recommend the reader to be literate in a little chemistry and/or physics or they may become lost in the science, which primarily deals with isotopes.

How good is it?

It’s good, a different perspective on an old topic and a worthwhile read if you happen to come across it.


stars much ado





3.5 mortar and pestles out of 5

More Silly Science Songs

It’s time for another edition (edition 1 here) of “songs posted on twitter that I have reappropriated with stupid science lyrics“. Please enjoy/roll eyes/headdesk as appropriate. I’ve included YouTube links to the original songs this time, for those who don’t share my refined and highly sophisticated tastes in music.


Wuthering Heights Synchrotron Nights by Kate Bush – March 28

Out on the circley, light source floors
You diffract the x-ray beam
You had to work nights
I had jealousy
Too late, too sciencey

How could you leave me
When I wanted to
Watch BSG with you
I hated you, I loved you too

Bad dreams in the night
They told me it was just a really bright light
Leave me behind on synchrotron, synchrotron, synchrotron nights

Heathcliff, it’s me Cathy
Please come home
I’m so bored, let me watch that TV show


Just the Way You Are Be a Chromatographer by Billy Joel – March 25

Don’t go swagin’
To try and seal me
I’ve never sprung a leak before
I don’t imagine
You’ll lose your helium
I’d might not seal you anymore

I would not leak you
In times of trouble
We never could have flowed this far
I’ll take the noble gas, I’ll take the bad air
So you can be a chromatographer

Where the Streets Peaks Have No Name by U2 – May 13

I want to run I want to find
I want to identify the molecules that show up as ions
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the peaks have no name
I want to feel, the oven vent on my face
I see my sample disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the unknowns, shame
Where the peaks have no name


Nightswimming Titrating by REM – May 27

Deserves a quiet lab

The standard solution in the fumehood
Made up years ago
Turned around backwards cos the label’s gone

Every titre
Reveals the indicator changes
The endpoint’s so much clearer

I forgot my labcoat at the benches edge
The burette’s low on titrand

You May Be Right by Billy Joel – June 10

Friday night I smashed your flasky
Saturday I said I’m sorry
Sunday came and trashed glassware again
It was just a reaction
Wasn’t hurting anyone
And we all worked through the weekend so no change


I’ve been stranded in the no yield zone
I walked the mass spec room alone
Even solved the NMR shifts in the rain
And you told me not to characterise
But I made the white crystalline
So you said that only proves that I’m insane


You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be the molecule I’m looking for
Turn out the lights
Turn on the UV
You may be wrong for all I know
But you may be right


Young and Beautiful Topical by Lana Del Rey – June 25

Will you still cite me
When I’m no longer young and topical
Will you still cite me
When I am nothing but historical
I know you will


Heart Nanoparticle of Gold by Neil Young – July 1

I’ve been to Stanford
I’ve been to Harvard
I’ve crossed the ocean for a nanoparticle of gold

It’s citrate stabilised
It’s such a small size
Keeps me searching for a nanoparticle of gold
And I’m getting old


Running on Cooking Up Ice by Billy Joel – July 10

There’s a lot of tension in my home
The cancer’s building up inside of me
I’ve got all the symptoms & the side effects
Of imminent mortality

It’s not hard to understand that
My blue crystals are superior
In a world of pregnant wife and teenage son
My motives are ulterior

So I decided to start cooking up ice
Paying the price too long
Killing and scheming cos I’m cooking up ice
Where did my life go wrong



Lab Clutter and Cleanliness

It’s the time of the year that our laboratory inspections have rolled around again, and once again, as it is every year, one of the key pieces of advice is to keep our spaces “free of clutter”. And once again, as we do every year, I expect we will be judged as failing to meet this criterion.

The response from the lab manager is always something like “This is a real laboratory.” “We’re doing work, of course there’s stuff all over the place”, or my favourite “I’m actually working on that right now” (where ‘right now’ means ‘anytime within the last 4 weeks’).

The lab I work in has a very poor culture of tidiness, which is suspect is due to a several cultural and historical factors. One contributor may be the constant quiet tousle for work space in the organisation, and if labs are seen to be underutilised the murmurs will start… “Look at that big bench with nothing on it. When’s the last time you saw someone working there? What do they use that fumehood for if there’s nothing in it?”. There’s also a reluctance common amongst older chemists to throw anything away, which inevitably increases clutter. However, it’s my opinion that the main cause of lab clutter in my workplace is simply laziness.

Over the last few years, as my feelings of ownership over the workplace have increased, I’ve began to rearrange, replace, and rehome items I felt were cluttering the laboratory. The one recent change which has made me exceedingly happy, is allocating personal bench and hood space to every person in the team. It took over 4 years working here to get everyone to agree to it but it’s made a massive positive improvement on the way I conduct lab work. We now have 1 full bench and hood for our sole personal use, and a few remaining spaces that will continue to be communal areas. Leading up to this was a period where I couldn’t even find a spare 30 cm2 to decant something into a beaker; people would work wherever they could find a skerrick of bench, and leave glassware, containers and all manner of laboratory miscellany about the place with reckless abandon. When I did manage to clear a space for myself I sometimes felt it necessary to leave it looking like this.


As a small team of only 4 people, we have a large lab space of approximately 150 square metres over 3 laboratories. Granted, we do have quite a lot of stationary equipment and instruments with large footprints which take up a fair bit of room. But even so, as the newest employee (at almost 5 years), I feel as though my colleagues have forgotten (or never realised) exactly how good we’ve got it and don’t appreciate the space we have. All of my previous workplaces had shared benches and hoods which were always kept tidy and uncluttered. I don’t remember any fights or meetings had over messiness. The first lab I worked in didn’t even have offices and we hot-desked in the lab without any issues.


This is what my hood looks like right now. Given that I don’t do any synthesis, I’ve no need for a permanent Schlenk setup or anything like that. My bench is much the same, housing only a box of kimwipes, a box of pasteur pipettes and a sharps disposal container. My colleagues have commented to me things like “you haven’t done any lab work for two weeks”, an assumption they’ve made simply because they haven’t seen any glassware or equipment on my bench/hood in that time. What they’ve failed to realise is that of course I’ve been working in the lab, it’s just that I’ve just done this really weird thing called cleaning up after yourself.

Of course I’m not a complete lab cleanliness saint, and sometimes I leave stuff lying around too. Out of laziness, forgetfulness, or spite (the spite thing never works BTW, a messy person does not care or even notice that you have made things more messy).

Safety issues aside, I feel like a messy lab displays a real lack of pride in the work that you do. We often have visitors to our lab, students, visiting scientists, sales reps, other professionals and frankly it’s embarrassing to me thinking about the state our labs have been in at times. It doesn’t look like we’re working hard, it looks like we are shameful filthy pigs.



Postscipt. One piece of clutter I was rather fond of was this HPLC energy bar which used to sit on top of our instrument, in what I saw as a particularly knee-slappingly hilarious (and harmless) joke. Health and Safety Inspectors did not agree and now it is gone.

Books in Scientia – Newton and the Counterfeiter


newtonTitle and author

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Tom Levenson

What’s it about?

The little known latter part of Isaac Newton’s career, when he was warden of the Royal Mint in London. Chiefly responsible for transforming the currency and eliminating coin clippers and counterfeiters, Newton goes after notorious ‘coyner’ William Chaloner (and – ***spoiler alert***- totally nails that mofo).

What are the good bits?

Levenson is a very effective storyteller, using evocative language and ye oldey timey wordseys to transport the reader back to late 17th/early 18th century London. It’s also nice to read something about Newton which does not have to do with apples or calculus (not that I have anything against either of those things… except calculus).

What are the not-so-good bits?

It can be difficult to tell with historical non-fiction which parts are true truth and which parts are creative license and I found myself wondering this along the way. Best to not think about it and just enjoy the ripper story.

What does it say on p220 line 27?

Chaloner had always brandished his skills as a weapon. His mastery of the theory and practice of coining was the foundation of published claims that he could better the Warden.”

Chaloner, you dastardly fellow. You can’t fool Newton. Your comeuppance will come up… ance.

Who should read it?

Those who would like to learn how to do the coyning and the clipping and then go back in a time machine and make loads and loads of dollahz in 17th century England.

How good is it?

It’s good indeed. I liked it and it wasn’t even about chemistry!

newton stars




4 watchglasses out of 5


Books in Scientia – Cathedrals of Science


Title and author

Cathedrals of Science by Patrick Coffey

What’s it about?

A history of modern chemistry spanning the late 1800s through to the 1940s. The focus is on the personalities of some of the influential chemists of the time, as well as their scientific achievements. The main ‘character’ is Gilbert Lewis, American physical chemist and arguably the best chemist to never win the Nobel Prize.

What are the good bits?

The last few pages are particularly gripping and almost murder mystery-esque. The exploration of the character and personal quirks of many of these chemists (especially Lewis) is quite engaging. It reminds us that these giants of modern chemistry, whose names we use every day, were real people with real flaws as well as brilliance.

What are the not-so-good bits?

I found the book a little hard to get into at first. Beginning with acids and bases, it’s not the most thrilling of chemistry topics to me and I didn’t really warm to Nernst and Arrhenius as the first chemists we come across in the narrative.

What does it say on p303 line 19?

On Lewis resigning from the National Academy of Sciences: “This petulant resignation must have discouraged many of his supporters, and the American Nobel nominations for Lewis fell off after 1934.” Yet another entry in the long list of reasons why Lewis never won the Nobel. Sounds like if he wasn’t such a copper nanotube things might have turned out differently for him.

Who should read it?

Those who want to find out more about the foundations of modern chemistry, with a focus on the personalities of people who contributed significantly to it.

How good is it?

Reasonably good, a worthwhile read.

3.5 bunsen burners out of 5

stars cathedrals

Books in Scientia – Periodic Kingdom

2014-02-11 23.50.55

Title and author

The Periodic Kingdom by Peter Atkins

What’s it about?

Good question… it’s about the periodic table. The book is written as though the periodic table is a continent, a new land to be discovered and explored. Atkins plays the role of the anthropologist, describing its trends and intricacies as a scholar who has lived amongst the native tribes, learned their way of life, their history and their governance, and is sharing this knowledge with the reader.

What are the good bits?

Atkins has a unique writing style (that simply infuriated me when battling through his enormous eponymous physical chemistry textbook) which is quite well suited to this interesting premise.

What are the not-so-good bits?

A couple of parts of the book are out of date, in particular mention of the elements joliotium and hahnium. Although the uncertainty surrounding the names of these elements is acknowledged in the text, other names ended up being chosen after the book was published. From what I could find on the all-knowing internets, there were no further editions after the 1995 original to update these details.

Atkins also referred to carbon as the ‘King of Mediocrity’ to which I raise a hearty objection. Or maybe he was being facetious…

What does it say on p147 line 8?

For this part of my reviews I usually choose a page at random, but for this book there was a particular quote from the epilog [sic… WTF is this by the way, isn’t Atkins British? He should know better] I wanted to use.

The real world is a jumble of awesome complexity and immeasurable charm. Even the inanimate, inorganic world of rocks and stone, rivers and ocean, air and wind is a boundless wonder. Add to that the ingredient of life and the wonder is multiplied almost beyond imagination. Yet all this wonder springs from about one hundred components that are strung together, mixed, compacted, and linked, as letters are linked to form a literature

FUCK. YEAH. Chemists, this is our “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Why isn’t this quote famous? The whole freaking world is made of elements. Just elements. That is it. And those elements are OURS. Why are people scared of them? They are amazing. The world is made of elements and they are amazing and it is amazing. The end.

Who should read it?

Despite its clear and easy to understand explanations of the trends of the periodic table, I doubt this would interest those without a chemistry background or a significant interest in the technicalities of the periodic table. I’d be interested to know who Atkins imagined the audience for this book would be.

How good is it?

It’s good, but slightly dated, and the style is something of an acquired taste I presume.

3 squeezy solvent wash bottles out of 5

kingdom stars

Flavour Tripping with Miraculin – Renée Reports

Earlier today I hosted a quite interesting afternoon tea with some friends at work. I’d purchased some miraculin tablets, and a few assorted foodthings to try ‘flavour tripping’. Miraculin is a protein found in the fruit of the Synsepalum dulcificum plant, native to West Africa. When a miraculin tablet is dissolved in the mouth, the protein binds to your taste buds and changes your perception of flavours. The remarkable effect of this is that sour or bitter tastes are changed to taste sweet.

2014-04-07 17.16.45

The tablets themselves are pretty nothing, with a flavour I would describe as ‘cardboard fruit tingles’. You have to be sure to roll the tablet very well around your tongue, and coat it all over or you’ll find there are parts where your tastebuds can still detect sour flavours. The foods we tried this afternoon included;

  • Lemons and limes: in a word, delicious. Especially the limes. It’s a delight to sink your teeth into a wedge of lime and have the taste of sweet citrus fill your mouth, no puckering or squinting required!
  • Salt and vinegar chips: unusual, the acidity of the vinegar is completely muted and there is a dull sweetness present, but the chips still tasted overall like a savoury snack. Ordinarily I find salt and vinegar chips revolting, but I could’ve easily eaten the packet on miraculin.
  • Natural yoghurt: as expected, the sour flavour of natural yoghurt was modified so it tastes just like a sweetened yoghurt. Very pleasant.
  • Sharp cheddar: the sharpness of the vintage cheddar was muted, so that the cheese tasted like a colby or other mild firm cheese.
  • Goats cheese: very close in flavour to cream cheese icing commonly found on carrot cake. Easily could’ve eaten the whole lot.
  • Vegemite: pretty gross, vegemitey but somehow sickly as well. Do not recommend.
  • Tabasco: the hottest sweet chilli sauce I’ve ever tried.
  • Vinegar: I read somewhere that on miraculin vinegar would taste like apple juice… HELL NO. Look, it’s drinkable but it’s still vinegar really. Drinkable vinegar. Yum…
  • Guinness: I also read that Guinness was going to taste like chocolate. It did not. It’s interesting that the bitterness of the beer is completely gone, but the chocolate I was hoping for was sorely lacking and it was not really very nice at all.

2014-04-07 17.15.45

After trying these, a few other items I’d be interested in sampling;

  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Wasabi
  • Mustard
  • Rocket, endive or other bitter leaf vegetable

If you are curious about trying Miraculin I’d definitely recommend giving it a go. At $2-3 bucks a pop, the tablets aren’t cheap, but it’s worth it because it’s a lot of fun and really messes with your perception of some foods. We found the effects of the Miraculin tablets lasted about 30-40 minutes. I still have a couple of tablets left, so if you have any suggestions for other things that could be fun to try, hit me up.


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