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Generational Science Literacy

October 26, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 42

Oct. 12, page 7: The News of the Week story about the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine incorrectly names the secret initiative that led to artemisinin as “573.” The initiative was named “523.”

The cover story “How the Internet Changed Chemistry” (C&EN, Aug. 10/17, page 10) and the lab explosion at the University of California, Berkeley (C&EN, Aug. 24, page 36), may be related phenomena.

After hiring a college student who had never used a handsaw, I am concerned the current generation of students, while extremely computer-savvy, has been raised in sterile urban or suburban environments, handled chemicals in microscale organic lab, and is missing a lot of practical knowledge of materials that was once taken for granted.

The UC Berkeley explosion, involving 1 g of a diazonium perchlorate compound, is hard to fathom when the first thing you learn about diazonium salts is that they are generally explosive in the solid state and are handled in solution at low temperatures. The explosive nature of organic perchlorates is legendary, or at least it was when I was in school. No one who had set off cherry bombs as a youngster would consider isolating an entire gram of either class of chemical.

The recent fatality at UC Los Angeles, mentioned in the article, gave me the same impression. I inferred that the California chemist failed to follow written instructions and then attempted to extinguish a minor tert-butyllithium fire by emptying a beaker of hexanes on herself.

I think that the remedy for this situation is more time in the library, not more bureaucracy. The photo of the professor and the university “safety executive” working together reminds me of a quip my father once made, that knowledge did not result from the exchange of ignorance.

G. David Mendenhall
Pomona, N.Y.



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