Leaving Reason Behind for the Sake of Sensationalism

Generating Curiosity:

“Forget what you learned in high school, this new carbon molecule has 6 bonds” – proclaimed the title of an article that popped up on my Facebook news feed. This certainly piqued my interest, although I was skeptical about their claim of forgetting what we learned in high school.

As I read the article, I realised that the communication about this extraordinary compound with a Carbon atom bonded to 6 other Carbon atoms was indeed true; however did not justify the sensational title. Further on, I read the original journal article that published results of this research and I was thrilled. It is certainly a fascinating phenomenon. This species has indeed been crystallised and its structure characterized by X-Ray diffraction.

Gaining Clarity:

The facts are as follows.

  • The compound is a derivative of hexamethylbenzene: C6(CH3)6
  • The isolated ionic species has the composition: (C6(CH3)6)2+
  • It was synthesized under extreme acidic conditions: in the presence of magic acid – (HSO3F/excess SbF5)
  • The ionic species is stable in solution at low temperatures: -78 °C
  • The single crystals are unstable outside the solution, can only be handled in a cold nitrogen stream

Although 3-centred 2 electron bonds have been known since the study of Boranes in the earlier 20th century, a species with one Carbon atom connected to 6 other Carbon atoms is thoroughly unprecedented and a phenomenal result. It certainly is a spectacular exception to the “Carbon can form only 4 bonds” rule. It reminds me of a beautiful molecule I had synthesized during my research days, which had 5 different bonding modes of Oxygen in a single molecule. Goosebumps!

Scientific research is replete with such spectacular results and exceptions to well accepted rules, however it does not always follow that what our high school text books say is wrong. Even when theories or models are proved wrong or become more evolved, they are included in school science text books to provide a context. For instance, in atomic structure the study starts from Dalton’s model followed by Rutherford’s model, then the Bohr’s model and finally the currently accepted Quantum Mechanical model.

Effective Communication:

In today’s world of easy access to information, science communicators have an immense responsibility to convey scientific results in the right context rather than misleading general public and impressionable young minds with sensationalism.

My mother believes her Tupperware product catalogue more than my Chemistry expertise, whenever I tell her not to use plastic utensils in the microwave oven. Sure shot way to render my advanced studies futile, when I can’t convince my own mother to adopt safe practices at home. Such is the power of suggestion!

Verify before you believe:

So, I urge young and old readers alike to not get swayed by sensational titles and claims made by content on the internet. Even genuine websites fall into this trap. Do exercise caution before believing all that you read and especially while quoting these in your own writings and conversations. Better yet, consult an expert in the field to gain better clarity.

Read responsibly! And don’t forget your high school chemistry, not yet!

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Dr. Soumya Sreehari

Co-Founder and Specialist at NumberNagar®
Dr. Soumya is an Educator and Researcher with a passion for reading, writing and teaching. She holds a PhD in Chemistry (Michigan Technological University, Houghton, USA). Her experience as a student and a teacher in two countries led her to pursue a career in Education. Her core work at NumberNagar® involves quality delivery of product and services at every stage of the customer life cycle. She leads the team that makes this happen. Previously she has taught Chemistry to first year undergraduate students at Michigan Technological University. She is a voracious reader and challenges herself to read 50 books every year.

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