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October 17, 2011
Volume 89, Number 42
p. 80

Arsenic Sells, Molecules Tickle The Funny Bone

Jeff Huber

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Read the sign: Rude heterocycles not welcome.

To grab hold of our ever-shrinking attention spans, the marketing world has often used clever turns of phrase that delicately flirt with the humorously vulgar. Take, for instance, Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” ads from 1984 or 1999’s “Make 7UP yours” TV promos. And now, in 2011, a similarly provocative promotion has begun to grace the pages of C&EN.

Synthonix, a supplier of building-block chemicals for drug discovery, recently launched a print ad campaign depicting the structures of a number of its heterocycles. In one particular ad, each heterocycle is proudly displayed with its catalog number. But a certain five-membered unsaturated ring featuring arsenic has been crossed out and placed above a caption that reads, “No Arsoles.”

According to Chief Executive Officer Gary Allred, the idea for the ad first came to him in late June during the 12th Tetrahedron Symposium, held near Barcelona. A symposium attendee approached Allred to ask whether Synthonix “had any arsoles.” Allred’s response? “We used to have one, but we had to let him go.”

And with that one quip, a successful marketing campaign was born. No sooner had Synthonix started running print ads with the “No Arsoles” graphic than the firm started receiving e-mail requests for coffee mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with the very same image. But there was a problem: No such swag existed. Thankfully, the Wake Forest, N.C.-based company has since printed a number of T-shirts, and it hopes to make the garments available for purchase through its website soon.

Among readers of C&EN, Synthonix’ ad has been creating quite a buzz. “I must say that I laughed out loud when I looked at the back cover of my Sept. 5 issue of C&EN and thought for a minute that I was looking at the back of a MAD magazine,” writes Paul S. Palumbo, of West Newton, Mass. “I get it, but I wondered if the editors of C&EN do.”

Paul May, 2008, Imperial College Press
Chemistry levity: May’s tome.

Well, Paul, the Newscripts gang certainly does get it, and we’ll be buying T-shirts as soon as they go on sale.

Across the pond, in England, the University of Bristol’s Paul W. May is also no stranger to molecules with humorous (or is that humourous?) names. In fact, the physical chemistry professor literally wrote the book on molecules with funny names.

Published in 2008, May’s “Molecules with Silly or Unusual Names” documents more than 250 delightfully dubbed chemicals: everything from moronic acid (a triterpene found in the sumac Rhus javanica) to draculin (an anticoagulant found in the saliva of vampire bats) to diurea (aka N,N’-dicarbamoylhydrazine).

According to May, the 176-page book began to take shape about 15 years ago when he was at a pub with some pals, and one of them mentioned the existence of a compound called—you guessed it—arsole. Inspired by this knowledge, May quickly launched a website (bit.ly/bC73Ad) that not only listed humorous names of molecules but also described those molecules’ uses and etymological history. Within days, May says, the website had “gone viral,” and readers the world over were e-mailing in their own suggestions. “If they were genuine molecules, I added them to the site,” May tells Newscripts, “and year by year the website grew in size and notoriety.”

Before long, May had more than enough fodder for a book; he even had enough to develop a lecture that he occasionally gives to student chemical societies. May says the lecture is “like doing 40 minutes of stand-up comedy.” Nevertheless, he maintains, “there is a surprising amount of science hidden amongst all the smut!”

Jeff Huber wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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