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Science Communication


Chemistry spelled out on vanity plates and Barbie gets a science makeover for kids’ meals

by Bethany Halford
May 21, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 20


License to derive

A red Corvette with the license plate PKEM WIZ.
Credit: Robert Wismer
Chem Vette: Robert Wismer washed his 1999 Corvette just for this photo.

Back in early February, when driving to the store was a mundane task, the Newscripts gang wrote about some chemistry-themed vanity plates that had been spotted on Teslas. It got us wondering what other chemistry-themed license plates our readers may have seen or even put on their own cars.

A red Porsche has the license plate ALKMST 1.
Credit: John E. Young
Heavy metal foot: John E. Young might be making gold from lead.

David White and Laurence Brown both have chemistry-themed plates. White’s Ford and Brown’s Chevrolet bear the plates SKLOGW and Q•MCDT, respectively. “We make a point to park them side by side when out to breakfast,” White tells Newscripts. “We are retired physics and chemistry teachers who now do educational consulting together.”

Readers might recognize Ludwig Boltzmann’s formula for expressing thermodynamic entropy: S = k⋅log W, which also appears on Boltzmann’s tomb in Vienna. Brown’s plate features the formula for expressing the quantity of heat flow, q, between two systems: q = m⋅c⋅∆t with D subbing in for the Greek letter delta, or ∆.

White had to explain those plates to this Newscriptster (whose physical chemistry skills are a little rusty). But Robert Wismer would have certainly understood them. Wismer, who taught chemistry, including p-chem, at Millersville University for 45 years, drives a Corvette with the plates PKEM WIZ.

Andrew J. Lovinger nabbed the Virginia vanity plate POLYMER when he moved from Bell Labs to the National Science Foundation to become the Program Director for Polymers. For his second car, he says, “the choice was less elegant, but I think still clear.” Its plates read POLYMR.

Rose Pesce-Rodriguez wrote to say she spotted the plates PASNGAS, which translates to “passing gas,” on a Tesla in Maryland. She also notes that a quick search revealed it’s a popular choice for vanity plates on Teslas in other states.

A man stands next to a red Mazda convertible with the license plate NMR.
Credit: Courtesy of Joseph A. DiVerdi
Instrumental: Joseph A. DiVerdi's web page features this NMR car.

Leslie M. Klevay’s 1973 MGB GT bears the plates KUPFER, which is the German word for copper—a subject he’s published on extensively. Joseph A. DiVerdi struck a pose next to his Mazda convertible with the plates NMR. John E. Young must have worked some magic turning lead into gold because his red Porsche has the plates ALKMST 1.

Finally, Jeff Erickson wrote in about the vanity plates his high school chemistry teacher had in the 1970s: PV NRT. “He then used electrical tape to add the = sign to produce the universal gas law,” Erickson writes. “This was technically illegal (defacing the plates) and the occasional police stop would force him to remove the tape.”


Two cars with the license plates SKLOGW and Q MCDT.
Credit: David White
Remember your p-chem? You'll need to recall some key formulae to figure out these plates.

Chemist Barbie at Burger King

A young girl holds a Barbie chemist doll.
Credit: Paul Bracher
What a doll: Jane shows off her chemist Barbie toy.

Whether you’ve got chemistry plates or not, chances are good that you’re doing less driving these days. But former C&EN advisory board member Paul Bracher took his three-year-old child, Jane, for a long drive late last month with an aim that will be familiar to many parents—he was hoping that the cruise would lull her into a nap.

Alas, Jane awoke angry and hungry, so Bracher pulled into a nearby Burger King drive-through and ordered a King Jr. meal for her. The masked cashier asked if the kid’s meal was for a boy or girl. Rather than lecture the cashier on the nature of gender-specific toys, Bracher said it was for a girl. He and Jane were surprised and delighted to find that his answer meant Jane got a chemist Barbie.

Burger King didn’t respond to Newscripts’ query about the toy, but Mattel said that it was inspired by the Barbie Scientist Doll. “Barbie has had over 200 careers since 1959, more than 28 of which have been STEM careers,” Mattel’s Devin Tucker tells Newscripts.

The Burger King toy, one of four possible Barbie toys included with the meal, doesn’t wear safety glasses. “Barbie must have donated her PPE to the first responders,” Bracher quips. But it’s likely they’re not included because they’re a choking hazard. The full-size scientist doll wears safety glasses and carries an Erlenmeyer flask. We’ve just ordered that Barbie to join the Newscripts action-figure collection, which includes the Muppets’ Beaker and several Lego scientist minifigures.

Bethany Halford wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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