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Newscripts

January 28, 2008
Volume 86, Number 04
p. 104

Going postal over structural errors

Some bitter news was delivered to the U.S. Postal Service earlier this month. Namely, that a stamp commemorating sugar chemist and Nobel Laureate Gerty Cori features a chemical structure that is, well, wrong.

U.S. Postal Service

Newscripts didn't even have to brush up on its carbohydrate chemistry to see the SUGARY SLIP-UP—once it was pointed out to us by a faithful reader. To get the gaffe, glance at the oxygen on the phosphate group's right side, and bear in mind that oxygen atoms are desperately unlikely to make the four chemical bonds shown.

The stamp would have escaped its faulty fate had designers connected the phosphate group to the sugar through the leftmost oxygen, instead of the rightmost.

It is a sad state of affairs, because it was precisely the isolation of glucose-1-phosphate, and discovery of the so-called Cori ester, that garnered Cori the Nobel Prize. "Long-dead carbohydrate chemists would roll over in their graves to see this structure after all the effort they made to get it right," one sugar chemist wrote in an e-mail to Newscripts.

The glitch made us rather glum, despondent even, as we considered the squandered opportunity to serve some first-class carbohydrates to the American public. For alas, the suboptimal stamps have already been printed and are still scheduled for release in early March, despite the error.

But fear not. Despite our existential malaise, Newscripts is never so distraught as to miss the sweet taste of irony and to share the entertainment—if not solace—that it may bring.

Much like what is being done here, the mainstream press haughtily broadcast the USPS error. But, unfortunately, many of these media reports about the blunder contained a blunder themselves.

In particular, C&EN was incorrectly given credit for discovering the mistake.

It was actually a reader of a recent C&EN article about chemistry-related commemorative stamps who noticed the error (C&EN, Dec. 17, 2007, page 29). This reader, who wishes to remain strictly anonymous, contacted C&EN with the revelation. After C&EN notified USPS of this bad news, it released a statement about the mistake. A general media frenzy followed, and somewhere along the line, a game of broken telephone began, and we unjustly got the props.

Shutterstock

As much as finding chemical inaccuracies is an act of sheer joy for C&EN staff, the glory should go to the reader.

It's not just stamp designers who have been dished some bad news of late. In the escalating debate about whether CLOWNS ARE SCARY, University of Sheffield researchers and 250 young subjects, have determined that they are—at least when they appear in hospital wards.

No amount of therapeutic whoopee cushioning can cushion the results, published recently in Nursing Standard, that report kids age four to 16 universally dislike pictures of clowns and often find them scary.

Who knew that when Bart Simpson said, "Can't sleep, clown will eat me," the television show was foreshadowing a scientific trend?

Full disclosure: Newscripts has always been a little freaked out by clowns, even before the thoroughly creepy 1990 film "It," about an evil creature that dressed up as a clown, which was based on a Stephen King novel. We've often worried that clowns might be wearing thick layers of makeup, gaudy wigs, and loose clothing to divert attention away from something seriously nefarious underneath—if there is, in fact, anything underneath.

All that being said, we'd like to take a moment to tell any clowns out there—especially any really creepy clowns who, say, might want to come and get us in the night—that we aren't actually celebrating the critical study.


This week's column was written by Sarah Everts. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org

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Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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