Science Writing Workshops

Science writing workshops at IISER Trivandrum and IISER Pune.

Details below:

science writing iiser

Source: Current Science


A Science Writing Workshop


The Periodic Table and the Four New Elements

Was rummaging through my files on the computer, when I came upon this piece. It was written for ChemMag, the annual journal of the Department of Chemistry, Women’s Christian College, Chennai. It appeared in print in the 2016 issue.


The year 1869 was momentous for Chemistry. It was the year when Dmitri Mendeleev published the first ever Periodic Table [1]. But then, discoveries in science do not occur in vacuum (unless your protocol calls for vacuum, i.e.). Mendeleev gave us the Periodic Table, but he was drawing on work already done by Antoine Lavoisier, Johann Döbereiner, John Newlands and several others.

Historians of Chemistry believe that one fine night in 1869, Mendeleev literally fell asleep on his desk atop some note cards. Each of these cards carried information on every element known at that point. Mendeleev had 65 cards to work with. When Mendeleev awoke, he knew exactly how these cards were to be arranged, and he set about arranging these 65 cards in a systematic order based on atomic weights, which eventually gave us Mendeleev’s Periodic Table [2].

That was 1869. And this is 2016. From 65 elements then, our periodic table now boasts of 118 elements. We know that the elements in the Modern Periodic Table are arranged in increasing order of atomic numbers. We have the Groups – the vertical columns – which house elements based on their similarities in chemical properties, due to the same number of electrons in the outermost shell. And we have the Periods – the horizontal rows – which have elements arranged in the order of increasing atomic number, signifying an increase in the number of outer electrons, thereby demonstrating a move from metallic to non-metallic characteristics of the elements.

As new elements were discovered, they were provided appropriate places in the Periodic Table depending on their similarities with elements already known. But perhaps the genius of Mendeleev is in the predictive power of his Periodic Table. (That said, opinion however divides on whether it was Mendeleev or Newlands, who first left empty spaces for undiscovered elements.)

As the world was getting ready to ring in the new year, on 30 December, 2015, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) announced that they had confirmed the existence of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. This meant that the hitherto incomplete seventh row of the Periodic Table was now complete [3].

All of these four elements are highly unstable superheavy elements with very short lifetimes, and are synthesised by bombarding heavy metals with ionising radiation.

Element 113 – with a placeholder name of ununtrium – was synthesised at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-based Science in Japan. The lab lead by Kosuke Morita had been trying to synthesise this element since 2004 with varying degrees of success.

Elements 115 (ununpentium), 117 (ununseptium) and 118 (ununoctium) were synthesised by particle accelerator scientists from the US and Russia.

With the elements synthesised, now comes the rather interesting task of naming them. Like astronomers discovering cosmic bodies, scientists discovering elements also get the right to name them. It has been suggested elemental names can be based on mythological concepts, places, famous scientists etc. (Polonium, Einsteinium – ring a bell?) In line with this thought, element 113 discovered by the Japanese scientists may well be named Nipponium. Deliberations are on regarding the naming of the other three elements.

In theory, the Periodic Table could still get bigger. We’ll have to wait and watch. Or contribute, and watch. But amidst this scientific celebration, there remains a rather comic situation that calls for our attention: Education Boards all over the world need to update their Chemistry textbooks which have now been rendered obsolete due to these discoveries!

[1] On the Relationship of the Properties of the Elements to their Atomic Weights, D. Mendelejeff, Zeitschrift für Chemie 12, 405-406 (1869).

M.Tech. in Science Communication

It’s that time of the year again when students find themselves at a crossroads, racking their brains wondering what to do next. I have two things to say to you if you are in such a situation. One: it’s okay if you do not have a clear roadmap of your career ahead, but it wouldn’t be okay if you do not think honestly about what you want to do in the years to come. Dive into yourself and find out what moves you, and then find out if you can make your career there.

Two: if you have found yourself fascinated about conveying science to a lay person, and if doing things innovatively and creatively drives you, then this M.Tech in Science Communication might just be up your alley. It’s a two year course offered by the National Council of Science Museums, Kolkata. The following is the advert inviting applications for the course from today’s The Hindu.

M.Tech. Science Communication

PS. I have a post in preparation for a long time now about Science Writing/Communication in India. Will do my best to post it at the earliest.

An Essay Contest and a Science Writing Workshop

ERIS VU Journal for Humanities has an open call for the ERIS Essay Prize. The topic for the essay is: What is a university education and why would I have one?

An important question to ponder on.

The contest is open to undergraduate, graduate and PhD students. Entry deadline: 1 May, 2017. Impressive prize money. Details here.


I have a post in preparation on Science Writing Workshops/ Programmes in India. Will be putting that up shortly, but in the meantime here’s an announcement for a Science Writing Workshop for Indian researchers studying forests, trees etc. The Workshop is organised by the Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding, Coimbatore. Details here.

The Storytelling of Science

Something that I wrote. It was published in Science Reporter in the July, 2016 issue.

C. P. Snow divides. Sir Beaufort sails. And I jut in House’s cane.*

There are times when C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures divide seems redundant. This is one of those times.

I happened to chance upon a piece on the internet titled The Most Exciting Poem Ever Written is The Beaufort Wind Scale. And needless to say, the title reeled me in.

So no, The Most Exciting Poem… is not a poem, but a scientific system of measurement that relates wind speeds to conditions observed on land and sea. The eponymous scale is named after Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1857) of the Royal Navy.

The scale defines with economy and precision 13 gradations of wind forces. (Beaufort 0: “calm, smoke rises vertically”. Beaufort 9: “strong gale, chimney pots and slates removed”.) And when I say economy, I am referring to 110 words. I find this amazing! In giving this scale to seafarers (and land-dwellers), Sir Beaufort offers us a peep into his mind. And what I find in there, over and above all, is grace in abundance.

So, here’s the scale as posted by Mallory Ortberg on The Toast. Good writing moves, they say. And I admit I am moved. (I might be in an altogether new orbit of earth as I write this.)

Description on Land | Description at Sea

Calm: Smoke rises vertically. | Sea like a mirror.

Light: Wind felt on face; leaves rustle; ordinary vanes moved by wind. | Small wavelets, ripples formed but do not break: A glassy appearance maintained.

Moderate: Raises dust and loose paper; small branches begin to move. | Small waves with breaking crests. Frequent whitecaps.

Fresh: Small trees in leaf begin to sway; crested wavelets form on inland waters. | Moderate waves, taking a more pronounced long form; many white horses are formed – a chance of spray.

Strong: Large branches in motion; whistling heard in telephone wires; umbrellas used with difficulty. | Large waves begin to form; the white foam crests are more extensive with probably some spray.

Near-gale: Whole trees in motion. Effort needed to walk against the wind. | Sea heaps up and white foam from breaking waves begins to be blown in streaks along direction of wind.

Gale: Twigs break off trees; progress generally impeded. | Moderately high waves of greater length; edges of crests begin to break into spindrift; foam is blown in well-marked streaks along the direction of the wind.

Strong gale: Slight structural damage occurs – roofing dislodged; larger branches break off. | High waves; dense streaks of foam; crests of waves begin to topple, tumble and roll over; spray may affect visibility.

Storm: Trees uprooted; considerable structural damage. | Very high waves with long overhanging crests; the resulting foam in great patches is blown in dense white streaks; the surface of the sea takes on a white appearance; the tumbling of the sea becomes heavy.

Violent storm: Very rarely experienced – widespread damage. | Exceptionally high waves; small and medium sized ships occasionally lost from view behind waves; the sea is completely covered with long white patches of foam; the edges of wave crests are blown into froth.

Hurricane: Very rarely experienced – widespread damage | The air is filled with foam. Sea completely white with driving spray.

Here’s the scale with the Beaufort Numbers and wind speed classification.



And this: Scott Huller has written a book on this very scale. It is called Defining the Wind. I haven’t yet read it, but going by the excerpt that he provides on his blog, I am sure I’ll soon be getting my hands on it.

As I finish this post, there’s House on my mind. Perhaps due to the C. P. Snow divide that I began with. To paraphrase House completely out of context (where else could I do this, if not on here?): There is no Great Wall of China with armed sentries posted every 20 feet between Science and Humanities. There is just a sometimes-here-sometimes-not thin line between them.

*And yes, there’s a glaring anachronism (not to mention, the hyperbole) in the post’s title. But then, writing is a free country. And so it grows.