What’s Wrong with this Picture: Acid-Base Edition

February 28th, 2011

I decided to attack the reading pile this weekend, which means that it’s time to play everyone’s favorite game:  What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Ready?  Here we go:

The image appeared across pages 46 and 47 of the 27 September 2010 issue of C&EN.  It accompanied a story titled “NSF Revamps Data-Sharing Policy” and can be accessed at that link.

Oh, so many quibbles…where do I begin?

1.  The graduated cylinder full of green liquid is filled way past the top graduation.

2.  None of the compounds written on the notebook pages absorb significantly in the visible spectrum—not even the out-of-place coumarin at the top of the page—yet every solution on the benchtop is colored.  (I’m assuming there’s no odd substitution at the 3 and 4 positions)

3.  For the reaction NaOH + HCl → NaCl + H2O, the HCl is captioned as “chydrohloric acid”

4.  The reaction 2 NaOH + H2SO4 → Na2SO4+ H2O is unbalanced.  If you’re not going to balance it, why specify two equivalents of NaOH?

5.  The correct value for the Ka of acetic acid to one significant figure is 2 × 10–5.

6.  One last thing that is more odd than wrong:  Based on what is written in the notebooks, I hope this is a high school or college chemistry exercise.  If so, it’s a little odd to see two different types of gloves being used.  The positioning of the hands (left on left, right on right) makes it seem like there is one person present and he’s wearing a different type of glove on each hand.

All of this said, props to Shutterstock and C&EN for showing SO2 as bent.

29 Responses to “What’s Wrong with this Picture: Acid-Base Edition”

  1. Neil Says:

    Terrible stock photos are the awful clip-art of our time.

    Check out http://awkwardstockphotos.com/ for some of the oddest (occasionally not safe for work)

  2. Pablo Says:

    One thing that you didn’t point out is the equilibrium arrows for the neutralization NaOH + HCl → NaCl + H2O and 2 NaOH + H2SO4 → Na2SO4+ H2O… The Keq of those reactions would be in the order of 1/Kw, where is the reverse reaction?

  3. Chemjobber Says:

    There’s a photo that showed up in a issue of C&EN somewhere between 2007 and 2009 that showed someone in a lab writing: “RCOOH + RNH2 => RCONHR” and other such silliness. I keep trying to find that picture.

  4. RB Woodweird Says:

    A double-shafted arrow means “is derived from”. It is the reverse of a single-shafted arrow.

  5. Aspirin Says:

    And why the different colored gloves? Well, I guess chemists are not always known for a sense of whimsy so this might enhance their reputation. The colors probably match the colors of the solutions; this could be an entertaining thing to do in the lab.

  6. Sharon Says:

    It bothers me that, in the equation showing water opening up an epoxide (uncatalyzed, at that), they don’t write “H” at the ends of the sticks in the products. Plus the OH in the product is attached to carbon by the H, not the O. (That would lose you points on an undergrad organic test.) Tsk tsk.

    All the same, I don’t want C&EN to stop publishing photos like this, they’re too much fun. Instead, they should embrace the low quality of stock photos and do like a “Where’s Waldo”-type feature in each issue, where you have to search for all the things wrong in the pictures.

  7. Hap Says:

    I don’t think the equation for the neutralization of ammonium lactate(?) is correct either – NH4C3H5O3 + NaOH —> NH3(g) + NaO3C3H5 + H2O (last term missing)

    I also would have figured people were supposed to use real lab notebooks in lab, not spiral-ring notebooks. (Better than Post-Its, though.)

  8. Glen Says:

    Why do these stock chemistry photos always seem to have water of various colors in the flasks? All that’s missing is a few pieces of dry ice in one of them. Now that’s chemistry!

  9. Fleatamer Says:

    the equation in red (top left of front page) is not balanced…..two waters produced

  10. Chemjobber Says:

    Let’s not forget these two wonderful threads on In The Pipeline about chemistry versus their photographers:



    From the second link:

    But that’s a practical matter. A larger one is the problem of falsification. It’s not just that our labs don’t look like that, although they sure don’t. It’s that one group of viewers will take away the wrong message (that lab work is constantly exciting and dramatic, like on TV), and another more suspicious group,will take away another wrong message: that it’s so boring that it has to be tarted up to be bearable at all.

    The truth’s in between. Exciting stuff happens, but it doesn’t happen the way a screenwriter (or an art director) would lay it out. And while the exciting stuff isn’t happening a lot of routine work is getting done, and a lot of dead ends are explored in what is (in retrospect) horrible detail. The job takes a particular personality type, and if you get frustrated easily or have a short attention span – in other words, if you’re the type who needs the stimulus of bizarre colors to find something worth looking at – then it’s not going to work out well for you as a career.

    I’ll close with one other photographer’s comment:

    “Science is about accurately representing data. Photography is about making an interesting image.”

  11. wolfie Says:

    What is wrong with this picture ? You believe too much to the media (or to some journalists doing their daily work), because you watch too much TV, or read newspapers, or ……

    What may be wrong with the media system, shows this link from the New York Times :


    The German Minister of Defense has apparently plagiarized about two thirds of his doctoral thesis. His Ph.D. title has been immediately withdrawn by his University at Bayreuth, but he is still in office. Could you imagine something like this in America ?

  12. Bethany Halford Says:

    Just out of curiosity, what artwork would you, dear ChemBark readers, have chosen for a story about NSF revamping its data-sharing policy?

  13. Hap Says:

    Could you have used a real lab photo, particularly with lab notebooks? I don’t know that any given lab picture would have had nothing wrong with it, but such a picture would have been likely to be a more accurate representation of the data that NSF wanted shared than the stock photo is. An alternative would have been a real picture of people working in a hood with a lot of things drawn on the hood sash – pharma likes to scrub hood sashes of anything interesting, but other people might not, and it would again represent the data that NSF wanted shared more accurately.

  14. wolfie Says:

    Here we go. We will check Paul’s Ph:D. thesis for errors, because we have nothing better to do. If he erred – good god !!

  15. Chemjobber Says:

    A pile of lab notebooks (instead of spiral ones), next to a laptop.

    Or, a cartoon of lab notebooks being poured into a funnel going into a laptop.

  16. Paul Says:

    @CJ: Here’s the photo you we’re thinking about:

    It was the penultimate post on my defunct personal blog. THe image came from a poster announcing an award for Dave Evans, but I believe it also appeared in C&EN. The funny thing was that a colleague of the guy in the photo left the following in the comment thread:

    The guy in that picture is my former coworker, we were instructed to wash all structures off our hoods before the photographer took any photographs, but the photographer was sad all the “pretty pictures” were gone, so had us draw generic reaction schemes on for show.

  17. Paul Says:

    Regarding @Beth’s question: Some thoughts on stock photos…

    Readers don’t like being presented with a wall of text. That’s one of the reasons why I put stupid Ed the Dog logos in posts, and I assume it is why C&EN inserts stock photos in articles that are unaccompanied by graphics.

    I actually think the subject of this stock photo is ok. The NSF has a major focus on science education, and this image is obviously some lab exercise. I think it’s easy to figure out some of the elements that the photographer wanted: (i) pretty colors, (ii) relevant science writing/scribble, and (iii) a human touch, here: hands. Since a lot of the writing makes sense, I wouldn’t be surprised if the photographer hired a chemistry consultant for this shoot, but his attention to detail was lacking.

    The information in the notebooks is incoherent; what’s written down is a hodgepodge and it doesn’t correspond to the samples on the bench. That’s probably not a big deal for most publications, but it has to be for C&EN. In C&EN’s defense, the publication has gotten MUCH better at picking stockphotos than was the case 3-4 years ago. I don’t find nearly as many odd things as I used to. Now I actually have to go looking for them.

    I don’t know how much C&EN pays to use each stock photo, but I still contend grad students would do this for free (i.e., a photo credit). The thing is, we need to know what you want because it would suck to keep submitting photos for free and never have any of them picked. Is it nothing more than an interesting chemistry scene, compelling inclusion of color, and a human element?

    If so and I had to organize a shoot to produce stock photos, I’d ditch the insipid use of solutions of food coloring and go straight to a laboratory favorite: the precipitation lab. (This is the one where you mix solutions of ions and generate precipitates.) You’ve got all sorts of colors in that experiment and all sorts of chemical equations you can jot down in a notebook.

    So, basically, I am fine with the subject of these stock photos, I just think they need to be a little more rigorously relevant to chemistry for C&EN’s readership. But at the end of the day, unless the errors are truly awful, no one cares (including me). This post was all in good fun. I don’t want a significant portion of what I pay to C&EN to go to scrubbing silly errors from stock photos; I’d prefer the magazine focus its resources on empowering its reporters.

  18. biochembelle Says:

    Come now-the different colored gloves add a sense of realism to the photo. Think about it: You rarely pull the last pair of gloves out of the box; instead you pull out the last single glove. And with everyone worrying about funding, departments are trying to find ways to cut spending, ergo they’re switching suppliers, ergo different colors :p

  19. Postdoc Says:

    With regard to the lab notebooks, I have both a spiral bound and a formal bound notebook. The spiral bound is my scratch notebook, I write down most of the calculations I need for my experiment and take down any notes about it (ie; workup and column conditions, anything odd, etc) When I have a good NMR of my compound I copy the procedure more neatly into my bound notebook.

    I will agree that what’s written on the lab notebooks is a mish-mash. Looks like someone just opened whatever chemistry books were handy and started copying things down. I knew a guy who told me that the Russian spies in old James Bond movies weren’t actually saying anything coherent to each other; just rattling off random Russian words.

  20. Paul Says:

    Russian Spies?

  21. Bethany Halford Says:

    @Paul – We know that WWWTP? is all in good fun, but it is a little embarrassing.

    Perhaps we can creatively use our next photo contest to generate a good library of stock images – that way there might be some sort of reward (or at least a chance for a reward) for taking photos.

    In the meantime, talented chemistry shutterbugs might consider contributing to low-cost stock art sites like Shutterstock. We’re not the only ones who use such sites, so photographers with chemistry know-how would be contributing more accurate images for all kinds of news outlets.

  22. Paul Says:

    @Beth and all other C&EN editors: Are there any common features you like to see in the stock photos you select for your stories? Are there things that you regularly (or occasionally) want that are difficult to find in libraries of stock photos?

  23. Chemjobber Says:

    @Beth: That sounds like the Twitter conversation that Rachel Pepling and I were having yesterday. Specifically:

    @Chemjobber @ChemBark You hit it on the nose re: stock art. We’re trying to create a pool of good chem pics thru the Flickr contests.

    @Chemjobber @ChemBark The first contest was pretty vague & I think future ones will be framed to get more “chemists doing chemistry” pics.


  24. drh Says:

    #5 is picky. The Ka must be 1 x 10-5 at some temperature. Maybe they keep the lab cool?

  25. Bethany Halford Says:

    @Paul – I think we’re always on the lookout for eye-catching images of people at work in the lab. Stock photographers seem to like to use colored liquids to jazz up a picture, but I don’t think that’s necessary. As you suggest, there are photogenic chemistry experiments.

    I’m polling my colleagues to see if they’ve got other ideas. One editor reminds me that people in stock photos aren’t usually wearing proper safety equipment – goggles and gloves. We usually can’t use photos without these. Also, it would be nice to see more diversity in stock images – remember what started off WWWTP? to begin with?

  26. Phillip Says:

    Stock photos are a nightmare.

    That being said, when I was photographed for this piece http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/3346662/You-might-get-an-anti-cancer-drug-or-a-useless-blob-of-gunk.html I flatly refused the photographer’s request to put something coloured in the flasks. As he didn’t want me to be in the ‘hood, we could only use water.
    (I did make sure I had a shiny new labcoat though…)

  27. excimer Says:

    Please. *This* is the worst stock photo ever. (may be nsfw if you, like, work in a monastery or something)

  28. ChemBark » Blog Archive » For No Good Reason, A Couple of Blog Logos Says:

    […] logos for a couple of blogs that had none.  After yesterday’s discussion of chemistry stock art, I might as well dump these […]

  29. wolfie Says:

    By the way, the German minister with his plagiarized Ph.D. thesis finally had to step down, not without leaving a stinking trail of moralistic pathos behind him in his demission speech.


    or alternatively


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