Newscripts | May 5, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 18 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 18 | p. 64 | Newscripts
Issue Date: May 5, 2008


Department: Newscripts
Tough act to follow. Beaker: World traveler extraordinaire.
Credit: C&EN
Tough act to follow. Beaker: World traveler extraordinaire.
Credit: C&EN

If you couldn't get a seat in the "Festival of Chemistry Entertainments" last month at the ACS national meeting in New Orleans, we are more than happy to fill you in on a few fanciful moments from the standing-room-only morning session.

Jack H. Stocker, a retired University of New Orleans chemistry professor, organized a full-day extravaganza, which was cosponsored by the Division of the History of Chemistry and the Bolton Society. This symposium is not about cartoons and jokes, but about whimsy, Stocker said. A simple example of whimsy, he said, is a paper on iron carbonyls written by a scientist named Steele.

Stocker donned his Mardi Gras-themed jester's hat to introduce ACS Past-President William F. Carroll Jr., who told the audience about Ken Reese, a former C&EN managing editor and master of whimsy. Reese wrote Newscripts, the column you are reading at this very moment,for a 36-year run ending in 2004. In narrowing down a sort of "greatest hits" collection from hundreds of "Reese's pieces," Carroll read from issues dated to match what he cited as important milestones, for example, when Carroll got married. Random maybe, but that's whimsy for you.

Stocker also invited Rudy Baum, C&EN's editor-in-chief, to show a few of his favorite letters to the editor, and for his bow to whimsy, Baum showed pictures of Beaker, C&EN's world-traveling mascot. Beaker, a Muppet with an off-the-chart geek essence, has been photographed by various C&EN staff members with Godzilla in Tokyo and a dachshund in New York, for example. On his latest trip, BEAKER jetted with two C&EN reporters from New Orleans to the West Coast News Bureau in Northern California.

In her own spirit of whimsy, Janice E. Mears, director of communications at Chemical Abstracts Service in Columbus, introduced some fun facts found in the CAS databases. Pushing past the patents on time machines and designs on the Starship Enterprise, she showed the audience an assortment of molecules named for molecular shapes; for example, felicene, which looks like a cat's face, and squaric acid, which is not shaped like a triangle.

Two presentations were rich in VERSE. Joseph F. Bunnett, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has published technical papers in verse. He summed up why more papers are not written in verse:

Narration in verse was the rage
In earlier years of our age
Factual statements appeared
Lucid discourse was cheered
Pleonasm was simply an outrage.
Presentation written in verse
Is characteristically terse
It takes so much time
To find rhythm and thyme
To state a truth or deny its inverse.

Howard M. Shapiro approached the podium with a guitar. One of the Boston physician's clever ditties fulfilled Stocker's wish for an update of Tom Lehrer's song "The Elements." Sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's Major General's Song, Shapiro added:

With years gone by, Tom Lehrer’s list’s in need of an extensium,
For dubnium and bohrium, seaborgium, lawrencium,
And also rutherfordium, and hassium, darmstadtium,
Meitnerium, roentgenium, and names straight out of Latium.
We’re up to date at Hah-vard now,
but listing names that start with Un’s
Is something I’ll avoid ’til I-U-P-A-C picks better ones.

In the afternoon, the audience gathered for talks by Mary Virginia Orna, Derek Davenport, Natalie Foster, Mary L. Good, and Stocker himself. Unfortunately, the Newscripts gang couldn’t make it to the symposium’s afternoon session, but word is that the day’s talks may be fodder for a new book brimming with chemistry whimsy.


This week’s column was written by Rachel Petkewich. Please send comments and suggestions to

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