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Science Communication


Tales of April fools

by Bethany Halford
March 31, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 11


Letters about letters

An envelope postmarked April 1, 1967, with a clown stamp and a letter that says: "No! qed RBW".
Credit: Courtesy of Fred Sauter
Legendary: R. B. Woodward’s brief correspondence with Fred Sauter.

The Newscripts gang recently received a delightful missive over the transom from Fred Sauter of Rochester, New York. In his note, Sauter recalls an episode from early 1967 when he was a graduate student in organic chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working with Herbert O. House.

“One day while duly reading the literature, I came across an article by the Nobel Laureate R. B. Woodward and colleagues in Tetrahedron. The article was a long synthetic sequence and I do remember that the authors used a very arcane identification system for designating the various synthetic intermediates,” Sauter writes. “The system made it very difficult to identify which molecule the text was referring to. To wit, the system went something like this: the first compound was designated ‘aaa’ the next ‘aab’ and so on. Deep into the article it became very annoying as I tried to locate molecule ‘gcl’ then molecule ‘jdm.’ In the diagrams, there seemed to be no rationale to the ‘lettering’ system.

“I was peeved by this annoying identification system and wrote a postcard to Woodward asking if he invented this system so that Vitamin B, when he achieved its synthesis, would be compound ‘rbw’ ”—a nod to Woodward’s initials, which he typically used as a shorthand signature.

Sauter says he heard nothing for a while. Then in early April, an envelope arrived that had been mailed with a US 5-cent stamp featuring a clown and postmarked April 1, 1967—April Fools’ Day. Inside was this short note:


By using QED­—the abbreviation for the Latin quod erat demonstrandum, a fancy, and now somewhat arcane, way of saying that you’ve demonstrated something logically­­—Woodward joked that the lettering would eventually reveal the logic underpinning the synthesis. “I just got such a kick out of it,” Sauter tells Newscripts. He says Woodward clearly had to put in some effort to find the clown stamp.


Thanks for the pranks

An April 1 tweet from Sigma-Aldrich featuring an impossible molecule.
Credit: Twitter
Irrational rashnovinol: This tweet caught some chemists by surprise on April 1, 2022.

Here at Newscripts, we hope that a good April Fools’ Day prank gives everyone involved—prankster and pranked alike—a hearty chuckle and not heart palpitations. Chemists need a laugh as much as anyone, so we asked via Twitter how lab denizens celebrate this humorous holiday.

Swapping colleagues’ size small gloves for size large and vice versa provides a good-natured guffaw for some. Others cited circulating petitions to ban the deadly chemical dihydrogen monoxide—which chemists will quickly recognize is simply water—as another way to mark the first day of April.

On April 1, 2022, lab supplier Sigma-Aldrich teased chemists by tweeting the structure of rashnovinol A, supposedly “a natural product isolated from Twigis gigantus.” Chemists who didn’t note the date were undoubtedly twitching from the sight of the impossible structure.

Graduate student Kelly Walsh tweeted about how she replaced all the data points on a scatterplot with an old photo of her adviser’s face when she presented during her lab’s group meeting on April 1 last year.

The person who uses the handle @HonestChemist1 reported changing the title and the first scheme on a competitor’s paper to match what a colleague was working on. The colleague’s disappointment at apparently being scooped also confirmed for the prankster that chemists don’t read the text but look only at a paper’s figures.

Perhaps the best thing about April Fools’ Day pranks is that they’re confined to a single calendar day, which will have passed by the time this Newscripts column appears in print. Nevertheless, we’d still love to hear about your memorable pranks.

Please send comments and suggestions to



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