Readers discuss AI inventors and recycling, and tell a classic joke

Unpacking the problem

I agree with Don Clark’s letter, except when he suggests ‘consumer attitudes need to be radically different before change will occur’. Consumer attitudes have changed. The Recycling Tracker Report for 2020, produced by the sustainability charity Wrap, states that almost nine out of 10 people are recycling regularly. Half of UK households are high performance recyclers who make few mistakes, and about a third are puzzled about what to recycle where.

Customers do not demand plastic bags and blister packs, that’s the way everything comes. When we gift a special bottle for delivery, we do not insist on two litres of polystyrene packing chips in a cardboard tea chest.

The best place to deal with a problem is where it originates – in this case, with the attitudes of suppliers and manufacturers.

Walter Cuthbert FRSC
Manchester, UK

AI as an inventor

The article on the problems encountered when filing a patent application that names an artificial intelligence (AI) machine as the sole inventor brought back memories of my own involvement in this area.

In the early 1980s I was a research manager at ICI Organics Division, where we had a small team working on what at the time were called expert systems. Our particular system was based around property prediction via computer-aided calculations on certain molecular properties, and synthesis design. Our programs were state of the art but very rudimentary by today’s standards.

In 1984, I presented a paper on this topic at a conference organised by the Chemical Structures Association in Sheffield, UK, which was published in their proceedings. One of the main points of the paper concerned the patentability of products invented while using these systems. After discussions with a colleague from the patents department, I came to the conclusion that once these systems reached a level of sophistication where they can be said to be the inventor, then patent protection would become at least questionable and very likely impossible. Jokingly, I suggested that the expert system should be given a name and trained to sign inventorship forms. It seems to have taken some 36 years for this to happen and become a live issue.

Peter Bamfield FRSC
Penarth, UK

The heated legal argument about whether AI can be named as an inventor is astonishing. I always thought an inventor is the person who reduces the invention to practice successfully, and grant of a patent gives them an exclusive period during which the invention can be commercialised. Can AI actually translate its invention into physical reality? If so, can it then go on to commercialise it, and what will it do with any profits?

Hooshang Zavareh CChem FRSC
Cambridge, UK

A heated climate

In his article about pseudoscience, Philip Ball stated that he had taken three of the assertions in Christopher Booker’s book The Real Global Warming Disaster, and disproved them by tracking down the facts. This prompted me to read the whole book again thoroughly.

Apart from one arresting footnote on p26, in which Booker stated that chlorofluorocarbons interact with ozone to produce carbon dioxide, I could find nothing untoward, a view apparently shared by your reviewer, whose ‘only quibble was that the author doesn’t make clear that consensus is not a scientific concept, but a political one’.

It is certainly not a ‘climate-change-denial book’: on the contrary, it gives a detailed history of the development of the ‘Climate Consensus’, from the initial concerns about global cooling in the 1970s, and then global warming. The book covers the origins of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the succession of climate conferences, and the extraordinary manner in which President Vladimir Putin was persuaded to ratify the Kyoto agreement shortly after his own chief economist had expressly advised against it. I have no hesitation in recommending this book, especially to scientists.

Booker was not a scientist, but a conscientious, thorough and honest journalist. He was also not one to mince his words, and it is a pity that his death in 2019 has deprived us of the opportunity to see how he would have reacted to Ball’s comments.

Tim Leeney
Via email

Editor’s note: Philip Ball’s original review of The Real Global Warming Disaster can be viewed at

Classic quip

Vanessa Seifert’s piece on idealisations and David Bowen’s letter reminded me of a joke that I heard over 50 years ago.

A number of university departments were asked to submit suggestions for research to help increase the milk yield on dairy farms. The chemists suggested examining the effects of trace elements in the soil; the biochemists wanted to research the cow’s digestive chemistry; the agricultural scientists proposed comparing feeding and various husbandry factors; and the mathematicians were to use the data from all these for multiple correlation studies. The physics department’s bid began: ‘Consider the case of the spherical cow…’

Ron Gardner FRSC
Upton Snodsbury, UK

The spice of life

As a 90-year-old member of the Royal Society of Chemistry, one of the things I like about Chemistry World is the variety of its content. Looking through your March issue I can no longer keep up with the complexity of euonyminol but got great enjoyment from the description of the atmosphere around Venus, the life of Julia Lermontova and ‘The facts of fiction writing’.

It was a past article by the readable Philip Ball that catalysed me into reading the literature produced by the retired Italian chemist, Primo Levi, whose book The Periodic Table would be my desert island choice. My own efforts led me to winning a prize for an article on the ancient but still active mercury mines at Almeda, in the non-tourist-infested ‘Little Siberia’ in central Spain. But my greatest pride was when I had a letter published in Chemistry World.

I am sure there are many other retired wrinklies like myself, who find that chemistry can still enrich our lives. Keep it up!

Alan Peacegood FRSC
Hughenden Valley, UK