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Sensitive Sniffers, Periodic Table of Comic Books

by Deanna Miller
January 17, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 3

Sensitive sniffers

Our discussion of sniff tests reminded two readers of their own experiences (C&EN, Oct. 18, 2004, page 72). Jane Hadjimichael of New Haven, Conn., writes that on one day in 1966, she had to take her organic chemistry wet lab final exam right before her interview for a position at a telephone company.

Hadjimichael warns that her other story is far less humorous. Once she was crossing the parking lot of a facility that housed both a day care center and research laboratories. The latter used highly toxic chemicals and radionuclides in radiopharmaceutical development, and it had only one small fume hood.


She says: "I could smell ß-mercaptoethanol, the solvent I knew to be part of that day's schedule for the fume hood. The problem was that one of the other components was arsenic-76." She knew something was very wrong because the chemist was supposed to be working in a completely sealed glass reaction vessel.

Hadjimichael concludes, "Shutting down the labs for the week that it took to determine that the hood had not been serviced for several years and to have the appropriate filters installed did not endear me to the research group, but I am grateful for having a sensitive sniffer."

In another tale of an educated nose, Martin Tobkes of Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., writes that at his former place of employment, the plant had an esterification process that failed to go to completion. The procedure involved reacting an acyl halide with a steroid in pyridine.

Tobkes says this failure normally "could be attributed to moisture in the pyridine, but this time it was not the case. I happened to be in the lab where a chemist was trying to duplicate the reaction using plant reagents and solvent. At the end of the reaction, the product was worked up by drowning in water.

"This usually resulted in a mixture smelling of old socks, due to hydrolysis of the excess acyl halide. Instead there was a floral odor, which I immediately recognized as that of a low-molecular-weight ester." Questioning the engineer in charge, he found that the reactor had been cleaned with methanol prior to the reaction and was to have been thoroughly dried before beginning. However, analysis of the pyridine revealed the presence of methanol.

Tobkes says, "Recommending switching to acetone for the tank cleaning prevented further occurrence" of that troublesome floral odor where an "old socks" odor should be. Perhaps Tobkes can now turn to the more commercially profitable goal of making old socks smell like flowers.

Periodic table of comic books

The mention of physical comics prompted Margaret E. Schott of River Forest, Ill., to share a gem she found on the Internet (C&EN, Dec. 13, 2004, page 48). The Periodic Table of Comic Books ( was created by University of Kentucky chemistry professors John P. Selegue and F. James Holler.

"By clicking on an element, you get to see a list of comic book pages involving that element," explains Schott. Among the pages featured are those from "The Mystery of the Atom World" from Wonder Woman 21 (DC Comics, 1947). The villain of that story is subatomic-sized Queen Atomia, who uses radioactive hydroxo gas, produced by her neutron slaves, to shrink Wonder Woman to the size of a proton. Wonder Woman defeats Atomia--sadly, not with chemistry but with Super-Amazon telepathic waves.

This week's column was written by Deanna Miller . Please send comments and suggestions to



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