I never cease to marvel at the number of eminent people in virtually every walk of life who started out as chemists.

Chemical origins

I never cease to marvel at the number of eminent people in virtually every walk of life who started out as chemists. One such only came to light when he died recently at a tragically early age. 

I refer to one of the most pre-eminent and influential men you’ve never heard of - the American-born linguistics genius Larry Trask, whose early career was spent as a competent but unexceptional chemist. Trask took up linguistics in his 20s, possibly in an attempt to understand his first wife, a Basque chemist. He never achieved the popular acclaim of a Chomsky, with whom he often took justifiable issue. Maybe he needed a good agent but more likely he was a linguist’s linguist, bringing to his adopted subject a scientific rigour and refusal to accept anything unless it was supported by sound evidence. But if you ever decide you would like to know more about this difficult and fascinating discipline, his book, Language: the basics, remains its most accessible introduction.

And to illustrate that Trask really was one of the good guys, he was an anglophile who came to this country for a short holiday in the 1970s and stayed the rest of his life; he had a wicked sense of humour and could use it to devastating effect in putting over his point of view; and he achieved much of what he did despite being struck down by motor neurone disease.

Nowadays, innumerable famous people in such diverse lines of work as Hollywood stardom, folk singing, supermodelling, computer science, and big business, are lapsed chemists. Some of them, such as Edwina Currie and Elena Ceausescu, the profession would do well to keep quiet about, although to be fair, there is good reason to think Mrs Ceausescu was only ever a pretend chemist, abusing her authority to put her name to the work of others. But generally speaking, we can feel quietly proud of those who for one reason or another moved on to other things. In passing, if this country continues to let whole chemistry departments close down it will not only miss the chemists as chemists but in all these other important roles that chemists gravitate to.

Some old-timers who strayed were made of sterner stuff and never did give up chemistry but started moonlighting. The composer Borodin, for example, combined being a professor of chemistry with his career in music. I am not entirely clear which he regarded as the day job. And Milan Vukcevich, who was nominated for the Nobel chemistry prize, continued a distinguished academic career while simultaneously achieving fame, at least among the chess-playing community, as an international master and problemist.

For every former chemist who achieves a degree of fame elsewhere, there must be many more who do pretty well but never come to public notice. I myself spent a relatively short part of my working life plying my trade as a chemist before, in a series of totally unplanned sideways and upwards lurches, I segued from industrial R&D, to commercial development, to long range planning, to acquisitions, to finance, to general management.

In my finance period I spent time in the City and on the Street, but drew the line at the House, thus breaking a promising progression. When I became a finance director I would leave a copy of Bluff your way in finance on my desk, but nobody laughed.

No matter how I earned a living, I always kept half an eye on goings on in chemistry, during what were challenging times for the profession. And I do believe that, far from being a hindrance, my chemistry background always stood me in good stead, because it instilled in me the attitude expressed succinctly in the Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in verba, which I translate as, ’Don’t tell me, show me!’

So I never fell out with chemistry. Nor was my unusual career path motivated by ambition, incidentally, but rather a dislike of working for idiots. Now that I work for myself it has dawned on me that even when you are self-employed you might still wind up working for an idiot.