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Chemist Lacks Dobson Units, Reader Decries Methyl Molecule, Deep-sea Water in Demand. Mercury in the Dinosaur Age

by Ken Reese
September 20, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 38


Chemist lacks dobson units

In recent correspondence with chemistry professor Christopher M. Dobson of Cambridge University, an unidentified writer noted having found a recent C&EN article that mentioned dobson units. Dobson responded: "I realized a few years ago that, even in the unlikely event that I make a great discovery, I won't be able to have any units named after me. What is worse is that I realized that the Dobson of the units--the late Gordon M. B. Dobson--was an Oxford atmospheric physicist, and recently a square in the Oxford Science Area has been named after him." Dobson noted that he has had to deny on several occasions "that Oxford named the square after me," but is beginning to think that he should perhaps instead "just bask in undeserved glory."

Dobson added that near Dobson Square is Robinson Close, a street named for the late Nobel Prize-winning chemist Sir Robert Robinson. "Carol Robinson moved from Oxford to Cambridge at about the same time I did, but in her case it looks as if she could become famous enough" to have a road named after her, Dobson declared. "She has just been elected to the Royal Society after a remarkable career that included leaving school at 16, taking eight years off to have a family, and surviving working with me for a few years."


Reader decries methyl molecule

Ashley D. Nevers writes from fort Myers, Fla., that a noted newspaper recently carried a science column on "epigenetics and the important role in same played by the methyl molecule." Nevers was moderately perturbed and wrote to the offending publication to point out "(diplomatically, of course) that referring to a methyl molecule is a major goof. ... It's not a molecule; it's a substituent group, aka radical. Can you clarify?"

Back came a message from the science writer involved, which went about like this: "Editors barely tolerate my using words such as 'dopamine' or 'molecule' or 'receptor' or ... well, I could go on. 'Substituent group' or 'radical' will never fly. I therefore ran the column by three epigenetics researchers. When all three said that calling a methyl group a molecule didn't bother them, I breathed a sigh of relief. We would all be better off if Americans acquired a little scientific literacy, but I'm not holding my breath."


Deep-sea water in demand

Al Denio saw in a philadelphia newspaper a report on one of Hawaii's fastest growing exports: deep-sea water. The paper says, "Japanese consumers, in particular, are paying top dollar for desalinated Hawaiian deep-sea water, which is marketed as a dietary supplement that aids weight loss, stress reduction, improved skin tone, and digestion." At least, says Denio, "they do not claim it is 'chemical free.' "


Mercury in the Dinosaur Age

J. Robert Bridge, stimulated by current distress about mercury as a hazardous material, writes from Columbus, Ohio, to tell of the time--"shortly after the Age of Dinosaurs"--when his general science teacher brought a bottle of mercury to class "to amaze the students with this unusual liquid metal." Bridge at the time was a freshman in high school in his hometown, whose name he omits "to protect the guilty."

Anyway, Bridge goes on: "The bottle was passed around, and each student poured a little in his hand and rolled it around, spilling it on the desk and floor. Those with gold rings were amused to see the color change to silver, then leave a black smudge as the Hg was absorbed into their skin. Many students made little paper envelopes so they could take some Hg home and fascinate the family."

Bridge says he never heard that any student died of Hg poisoning, "but I bet that Hg could be found today in many old houses' floorboard cracks. EPA--eat your heart out!"

Note to readers: This Newscripts column is the last one I expect to write. It's been great fun; best wishes to all.


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