Monday, February 18, 2008

The USPS screws up the Sugar structure


Some bitter news was delivered to the U.S. Postal Service earlier this month. Namely, that a stamp commemorating sugar chemist and Nobel Laureate Gerty Cori features a chemical structure that is, well, wrong.

U.S. Postal Service

Newscripts didn't even have to brush up on its carbohydrate chemistry to see the SUGARY SLIP-UP—once it was pointed out to us by a faithful reader. To get the gaffe, glance at the oxygen on the phosphate group's right side, and bear in mind that oxygen atoms are desperately unlikely to make the four chemical bonds shown.

The stamp would have escaped its faulty fate had designers connected the phosphate group to the sugar through the leftmost oxygen, instead of the rightmost.

It is a sad state of affairs, because it was precisely the isolation of glucose-1-phosphate, and discovery of the so-called Cori ester, that garnered Cori the Nobel Prize. "Long-dead carbohydrate chemists would roll over in their graves to see this structure after all the effort they made to get it right," one sugar chemist wrote in an e-mail to Newscripts.

The glitch made us rather glum, despondent even, as we considered the squandered opportunity to serve some first-class carbohydrates to the American public. For alas, the suboptimal stamps have already been printed and are still scheduled for release in early March, despite the error.

But fear not. Despite our existential malaise, Newscripts is never so distraught as to miss the sweet taste of irony and to share the entertainment—if not solace—that it may bring.

Much like what is being done here, the mainstream press haughtily broadcast the USPS error. But, unfortunately, many of these media reports about the blunder contained a blunder themselves.

In particular, C&EN was incorrectly given credit for discovering the mistake.

It was actually a reader of a recent C&EN article about chemistry-related commemorative stamps who noticed the error (C&EN, Dec. 17, 2007, page 29). This reader, who wishes to remain strictly anonymous, contacted C&EN with the revelation. After C&EN notified USPS of this bad news, it released a statement about the mistake. A general media frenzy followed, and somewhere along the line, a game of broken telephone began, and we unjustly got the props.

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