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When Scientists Get Silly, Chemical Names Do Too

June 24, 2002|ROSIE MESTEL

Parents aren't to blame for all the silly names in the world--the absurdity crosses species lines. Imagine a diminutive crustacean having to live up to a name like Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis. Or the indignity, for a beetle, of a moniker like Agra vation, Agra phobia or Agra cadabra.

Chemicals get silly names too--and we are fortunate that, a few years back, an enterprising Brit decided to list as many as he could find.

Paul May, a lecturer in chemistry at Bristol University, already had a serious, educational Web site that features a molecule-of-the-month. (We're guessing that Bristol isn't too hopping.)

Then, one day at the pub, an organic chemist friend suggested a similar site with only silly names.

"I said, such as what?" recalls May--and his pal volunteered a bona fide chemical with a name too vulgar for us to print. Over beers, the two thought of several more--megaphone, buckminster fullerene, adamantane--and the site was born.

To May's delight, the word spread fast.

"I thought it was going to be a little Web site that a few friends could laugh about privately," he says. "But everybody seemed to like it, and everyone seemed to know some molecule. People all over started e-mailing me."

May doesn't list every name he gets sent--some are a bit too lame, he says. (Vulgarity, on the other hand, is an asset.)

Here are some of the more G-rated among his collection: munchnone, moronic acid, rhamnose, windowpane, constipatic acid, penguinone, dogcollarane, snoutene, rudolphomycin, Hi-O-silver and, my personal favorite: Bis(pinacolato)diboron. (Anyone for a cocktail?)

Oftentimes, says May, the chemicals got their daft names because of their shape, because they were named after the discoverer or named after the plant they were derived from.

A lot of the chemicals are of medical significance, and May posts little tidbits about what the substances are and how they came by their names. Such as:

* Godnose. This is actually an early, tongue-in-cheek name for Vitamin C. The vitamin's discoverer, Albert Szent-Gyorgi, was racking his brains for a name and called it godnose because he had no idea of its chemical structure. The name was disallowed, but Szent-Gyorgi did OK: He won a Nobel prize for his discovery.

* Antipain. You'd think this molecule, known as a protease inhibitor, would be soothing, but in fact it is toxic, causing itching and--yes, pain.

* Putrescine. This delightful-sounding chemical is produced in rotting flesh as a breakdown product of amino acids, the little chemicals that proteins are made of. Together with another chemical, cadaverine, it's behind much of the odor of rotting flesh.

* Spamol. May points out that this is not Monty Python's favorite molecule, but an anti-spasmodic.

* Domperidone. Not a champagne, but an anti-vomiting drug.

* Trunkamide. Its 3-D structure looks vaguely (very vaguely) like an elephant's head. Extracted from a sea squirt, it has anti-tumor activity.

* BCNU (be-seein' you). A drug that--while toxic--is useful for the treatment of brain cancer.

To check out May's more serious, molecule-of-the-month Web site (which we find very enjoyable, despite our earlier rib) go to

This month's molecule: the amino acid tryptophan.

But if your thirst for silly molecules is not sated, head straight to

Complaints about lewdness? Address them to the chemists.


If you have an idea for a Booster Shots topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012,

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