Isotopes and esters (that "maple syrup" smell)

Two waves of chemistry news hit my ears in the last 24 hours. As I was getting getting ready to herd the cats to the back of the apartment and cover up the parrot, I saw this clip on WNBC’s sports desk.

Yes, indeed, Tommy Lasorda just asked, “what does isotope stand for?” in reference to the triple-A minor league team, the Albuquerque Isotopes. Unfortunately, his informant, the new manager of the team, knew almost as little as he did. For the record, guys, isotopes are elements with different masses because they have different numbers of neutrons. If the number of protons change, you get a different element. But, I’m guessing that Lasorda could probably teach this football fan a few things about baseball. For chemistry fans, perhaps any publicity is good publicity, if they could just get the explanation right.

Esters (not “esthers”)– one of my favorite organic chemistry functional groups: this press-deprived chemistry term got major coverage today. Mayor Bloomberg formally announced that New York City’s “maple syrup smell mystery” had been solved. Since 2005, the smell occasionally has occasionally permeated Manhattan, even making 30 Rock fame. The culprit? New Jersey! Not the whole state apparently, but the most recent incident on January 29th came from Frutarom in North Bergen, which processes fenugreek seeds for flavorings and fragrances. Scientific American notes that fenugreek and maple syrup both contain the compound sotolone, a cyclic ester.

So, despite what many New Yorkers think, there are sweet smells that waft over from “that side” of the Hudson River. Married to a proud Jerseyite, I already knew that was true.


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