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Vol. 34 No. 3
May-June 2012

Stamps International |

See also www.iupac.org/publications/ci/indexes/stamps.html


2011: A Stamp Odyssey

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A myriad of events took place in 2011 to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry (IYC), including thematic conferences, special exhibitions, worldwide experiments, public demonstrations, and many other outreach activities. The achievements of chemistry and its contributions to the well-being of humankind were featured in dozens of magazine articles, newspaper reports, and YouTube videos. It was also an eventful year for chemical philatelists since more than 20 countries, proud perhaps of their industrial or academic heritage, deemed appropriate to release commemorative postage stamps that underscored the value and importance of chemistry to society. This article highlights a selection of those chemistry-related stamps and provides an overview of the “IYC Postage Stamp Central” web page, an IUPAC activity that strived (and continues) to keep chemical educators and stamp enthusiasts informed about this subject.

The first two IYC-themed stamps of 2011, issued in Israel on 4 January, feature the molecular structures of vital biomolecules involved in the synthesis and degradation of proteins and honor the Israeli scientists that contributed to the elucidation of their structures and function. One of the stamps [1] shows the structure of ubiquitin, a relatively small protein made up of 76 amino acids and whose main function is to bind to or “tag” unneeded or damaged proteins, which are subsequently broken down into small peptides by the proteasome. It recognizes Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, both from the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, who received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with Irwin Rose from the University of California–Irvine “for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.” The other stamp [2] presents the structure of the ribosome, the complex biological entity that synthesizes proteins starting from simple amino acid building blocks. It pays tribute to Ada Yonath from the Weizmann Institute of Science, who shared with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK) and Thomas Steitz (Yale University) the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for these fundamental studies.

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Belgium [3] and Slovakia [4] jointly issued on 17 January 2011 a pair of stamps that depict the chemical formulae or space-filling diagrams of water and carbon dioxide, the two key molecules involved in the formation of carbohydrates during photosynthesis. Many IYC activities emphasized the vital role that chemistry plays in human health and the environment and these two stamps are clearly connected to the IYC’s unifying theme “Chemistry–Our Life, Our Future.” It is worth noting that the Belgian stamp also honors the centennial of the First Solvay Conference, which was held in Brussels in 1911 and was mainly devoted to the theory of radiation and the quanta. A group picture of the conference attendees, which included prominent scientists such as Max Planck, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Ernest Rutherford, is shown on the selvage of the sheet of 10 stamps together with a few pieces of glassware, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, and a couple of chemistry textbooks.

Three stamps featuring Marie Curie, who was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium, provided a unique opportunity to celebrate the contributions of women to science. A French stamp issued on 27 January 2011 (#14, p. 44, Nov-Dec 2011 CI) depicts a classic image of the celebrated physicist at work in her laboratory in Paris, whereas the stamp from Sri Lanka, [5] issued three days later, shows small portraits of Marie Curie and M.U.S. Sultanbawa, one of the country’s most distinguished chemists and a former president of the Chemical Society of Ceylon (now the Institute of Chemistry Ceylon). Also featured on the Sri Lankan stamp are a blue star sapphire, the country’s national gemstone, and the structure of corundum (Al2O3), its main constituent mineral. In turn, the design of a Spanish stamp released on 7 February [6] is based on a previously unpublished photograph of Marie Curie taken during her second visit to Madrid in 1931.

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Indonesia issued in early March a pair of colorful stamps showing a “stick” diagram of Artoindonesianin C, a xanthone natural product isolated from an evergreen tree endemic to the Indonesian Islands [7] and the IYC logo [8].

Bosnia and Herzegovina and the British Crown Dependency of Jersey, a small island off the coast of Normandy in France, issued their own stamps featuring Marie Curie on 8 March (International Women’s Day!) but unfortunately neither one mentions explicitly the IYC (see stamps 12–13, p. 44, Nov-Dec 2011 CI). That is not the case of Macedonia, which released on 13 April an IYC stamp [9] showcasing laboratory equipment (a magnetic stirrer, flasks, condensers, etc.) in front of a periodic table.

On 9 May 2011, Paraguay became the first Latin American country to issue a stamp for the IYC (#16, p. 45, Nov-Dec 2011 CI). In addition to a portrait of Marie Curie, evidently a source of inspiration for budding scientists all over the world, the stamp also features the IYC logo and the symbol used for the country’s Independence Bicentennial celebrations, which took place six days later. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea also issued an IYC stamp (#15, p. 45, Nov-Dec 2011 CI) portraying Marie Curie, accompanied by Ri Sung Gi, the polymer chemist who invented Vinalon, a synthetic fiber produced from polyvinyl alcohol and widely used for clothing in North Korea.

A unique stamp crammed with chemical imagery representing the multiple links between chemistry and the Peruvian coat of arms was released in Peru on 1 August 2011 [10]. The stamp’s design elements include the helical structure of keratin, the main polymeric material that makes up the wool of the vicuña and other camelids, and the molecular structure of quinine, the antimalarial drug originally extracted from the bark of a Peruvian cinchona tree. Also shown on the stamp, but hard to see because of their small size and the blue background, are the chemical symbol, the atomic and mass numbers, and the electronic configuration of gold, a reference to the cornucopia spilling coins of the noble metal that appears in the lower panel of the coat of arms and symbolizes the country’s abundance of mineral resources.

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One of my favorite stamps of the year was issued in Romania on 26 September [11]. It features the chemical symbol and electronic configuration of tellurium, the only element discovered in Romanian territory, and a portrait of Franz-Joseph Müller von Reichenstein, the Austrian mineralogist and mining engineer (1742–1826) who discovered it in Transylvania in 1782. A few days later, Canada honored the IYC and John Polanyi, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986 together with Dudley Herschbach and Yuan T. Lee for their studies of reaction dynamics [12].

Curaçao, a small island off the coast of Venezuela, issued in October a set of four stamps featuring cartoon characters performing all sorts of scientific experiments [13], a commendable effort to appeal to a younger audience, which hopefully does not rely exclusively these days on e-mail and cellular phones to communicate with friends and family! Last but not least, the Sultanate of Oman released on 27 December a stamp displaying laboratory glassware [14].

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All in all, a very good year for the promotion of chemistry, and I am certainly glad that many postal authorities did their part to add to the celebrations. Let’s only hope that the momentum is not lost and that many of the activities that got started this year continue reaching out to the community and the younger generations for many years to come.

Daniel Rabinovich <drabinov@uncc.edu> is a professor of chemistry at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte and his research interests are in synthetic and structural inorganic, bioinorganic, and organometallic chemistry. He is also the editor of Philatelia Chimica et Physica, a quarterly publication dedicated to the study of postage stamps related to chemistry and physics.

 


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