Sunday, April 7, 2013

WWWTP? Operatic Chemistry in the Boston Globe

Has anyone seen the fantastic writeup by Carolyn Johnson in the Boston Globe today?

Johnson covers the J. Chem. Ed. recently penned by Prof. João Paulo André, of the Universidade de Minho to celebrate the storied use of poisons in opera. I hadn't realized, honestly, that this rich history involved poisons from such a wide variety of plants, minerals, and animals, or that specific references to each substance can be found in the libretti. Fascinating!

Unfortunately, the graphic that accompanies the story takes a few chemical liberties, which I've circled:

(Update 4/7/13 - I should point out that more structures are right than wrong here, which a commenter points out is more than you usually see in mainstream media. Kudos to the BG for covering the article the way they have)

I've written a short note to the author, reprinted below, and I will post any response I receive.
Dear Carolyn:

Good afternoon! My name is See Arr Oh (a pseudonym), and I blog at Just Like Cooking, a chemistry blog aimed at general-interest audiences.

I noticed your article in today's Globe, and I want to applaud you for your outreach. The article is well-written, and the science seems solid.

However, the image that accompanies your article includes several inaccurate structures for the discussed poisons. For example, the structures of mannitol don't show explicit stereochemistry (3D structure); these might well be glucose drawn this way. 

Scheele's Green is actually a copper complex; trimethylarsine is the poisonous gas that evolves from the dye. Arsenic trioxide and mercuric sulfide aren't actually monomeric, as drawn, but adopt several different crystal forms involving multiple As and Hg atoms, respectively.

Finally, the neurotoxin shown in the "snake venom" box is not actually venom, rather, it's anatoxin-a, from blue-green algae. 

Please consider changes to the illustration. If you need anything further, don't hesitate to contact me at

See Arr Oh


  1. Huzzah! These images are better than many you see (don't see?) in news items about chemistry. I'm impressed the structure of mannose is constitutionally right (also surprised to see mannose on the list at's hardly toxic).

    Bonus points for anyone who counts the number of electrons in radium. I didn't, but if it's the right number, the author gets a gold star from me!

    1. Though I agree it's nice to see the several that are correct, they're the ones that are explicitly grabbed from the paper. Tough to count electrons at this resolution, but there appears to be almost 88 in there!

  2. SAO, you made a mistake in your e-mail; you probably meant "mannose" in stead of mannitol.

    1. True that. I inadvertently looked at the graphic before I composed. Thanks for catching it!

  3. "I drank what?!?" —Socrates, 399 BCE