George Porter shared the 1967 Nobel prize for chemistry with Ronald Norrish and Manfred Eigen

The life and scientific legacy of George Porter 

David Phillips and James Barber (eds) 

London, UK: Imperial College Press | 2006 | 640pp | ?34.00 (SB) | ISBN 9781860946950  

Reviewed by Derry Jones

George Porter shared the 1967 Nobel prize for chemistry with Ronald Norrish and Manfred Eigen. After wartime naval radar service, Porter worked with Norrish at Cambridge; together they developed flash photolysis and applied it to the study of very fast reactions. In Cambridge and, later, Sheffield, Porter improved time-resolution from milli- to microseconds; subsequently nanosecond and shorter pulses from lasers enabled the technique to be further exploited. 

During 1966-1986, as director of the Royal Institution, Porter modernised its management, fabric and fundraising. While still directing (but not over-managing) world-class curiosity research, he became widely appreciated as an expounder of science through broadcast lectures, evening discourses and schools lectures. Effective demonstration of real science to the public can entail an element of showmanship; the nickname Flash was a compliment to brilliance in laboratory and lecture room - and on the dance floor. 

At the British Association and as president of the Royal Society, Porter advocated science from five to 18 in broader school education and he campaigned for independent research funding in what he called ’not yet applied science’. He deplored the emphasis on immediately exploitable science. 

Phillips and Barber have assembled an impressive celebration volume that reprints 20 significant Porter articles, preceded by a brief biography, with appointments and awards lists. Half the book consists of contributions from 20 former students, fellows and collaborators; each gives two or three pages of reminiscence and comment on experimental intricacies or future prospects inspired by a Porter paper, together with an original or relevant reprinted article by the contributor. Phillips highlights articles illustrating Porter’s view of science as a cultural activity aiming, like the arts, to ’discover man’s purpose’. 

A classified list of the reprinted papers and, especially, an overall index would greatly improve accessibility of this valuable and entertaining miscellany to other than physical chemists.