Readers share views on the coding crisis and meritocracy, and reminisce about a hazardous career

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Last month’s article on the coding crisis in computational chemistry is part of a much wider problem with software being in error or completely impenetrable. I thought it might be useful for members to share some experiences, maybe anonymously, so here is my two penn’orth.

Firstly, while studying x-ray crystallography as part of my PhD in the 1970s, I learned that the widely-used diffraction pattern computation had been coded by someone called Sheldrake (I think) years previous and had been much modified. However, several regions of the code were ‘no-go areas’ that were not to be modified because no-one understood how they worked and changes had unpredictable effects.

Secondly, in my working life years later we had a tried-and-tested – i.e. old – software-based warehouse inventory management system. In a routine, monthly, perpetual-inventory on 10% of stock, we discovered the computer system automatically changed anything in quarantine status back to free-sale status! This monumental error had eluded decades of use of the software in multiple locations and had any of the quarantine material then been shipped, multiple recalls could have been needed.

At the time the warehouse software problem was discovered, we were just getting serious about computer system validation and frankly, you can see why.

Anonymous correspondent

Judge on merit

Philip Ball, when he writes about science, usually has something interesting and sensible to say. His most recent column was a disappointing departure from his usual form.

Indignantly setting about an article by Tomáš Hudlický in Angewandte Chemie, Ball seems to abandon all attempt at a rational rebuttal, and rails at the journal for publishing it. It is apparently ‘abhorrent’ to favour merit over diversity in the selection from rival candidates for scientific posts or promotion, and one who holds that merit should be the principal criterion is ignorant and prejudiced. But when, for instance, a woman is selected over a man, she will invariably resist, as being demeaning, any suggestion that she was favoured because she was a woman.

Ball claims ‘cherry-picking’ of data by Alessandro Strumia to support similar arguments to those of Hudlický. Cherries, however, are there to be picked, and – who knows? – there may be a nugget of good sense in them. He drags into the argument Charles Murray, whose book The Bell Curve of 25 years ago still makes him a hate figure of the progressive wing of society. Ball implies that views put forward by Hudlický and Strumia, and even Murray, are widespread among the silent, unthinking majority, although well out of tune with modern thought. But to suppose that the more widespread they are the more reprehensible they must be is a non sequitur, as I am sure even Ball will admit.

John Boulton CChem MRSC
Norwich, UK 

Know your oats

Good to see that Scott’s group at the University of Aberdeen are working on the reasons why a diet rich in oats lowers cholesterol. An example of nominative determinism maybe?

Dr Peter B Baker CChem FRSC
Prestwood, UK

Health and hazards

The letter from David Fellows started me thinking about my experiences with lab mishaps.

I have always had a great interest in chemistry and have had a number of jobs in this field since leaving school at the age of 14. One of the firms that I was employed in manufactured non-ferrous alloys and the labwork involved analysis of samples from the previous night’s made up metals. Health and safety procedures were minimal. When I first went into the lab, I noticed that the brass window fittings and doorknobs were bright green and there seemed to be an unpleasant acidic smell.

One procedure involved the addition of a small piece of potassium cyanide to the reactants. The KCN was kept on the bottom shelf in an old tin with an ill-fitting lid. As the cyanide was in large lumps, a hammer was laid beside the tin to enable it to be broken in convenient small lumps on the concrete floor. Afterwards you would return the unwanted bits to the tin and wash your hands.

Another thing was that the first person entering the lab in the morning switched on the muffle furnace. Not only was this done to warm up the lab, but for us to make toast for break time by holding it at a suitable distance near the hot muffle (which was used regularly for ashing tin residues). Fearing damage to my health or an accident, I only stayed there for a few months.

I’m reasonably fit now and, after another job where I had a serious accident from which I recovered completely, I am now looking forward to my 90th birthday in a few months’ time. In spite of mishaps, there have been triumphs too and I still love the wonderful subject of chemistry. Having survived it all I’m hoping to now survive the virus!

Edward Shilton CChem FRSC
Braunton, UK 

Dinner and a demonstration

The review of Framed by a Smoking Gun: The Explosive Life of Colonel B D Shaw reminded me of the memorable lecture/demonstration which Shaw presented to Glasgow University’s Alchemists Club in the late 1960s. Of course there were plenty of exciting flashes, bangs and the famous firing a candle through a sheet of plywood.

Committee members of the Alchemists had the pleasure of enjoying a pleasant and slightly expensive meal with the speaker. Shaw regaled us with stories of his experiences in a German prisoner of war camp, where his chemical expertise was in great demand. Letters and papers were required to be free of ink before being used for clandestine purposes, although for a time the fact that the German censors had impressed a ‘passed’ mark on the paper was accepted by the guards. Probably of even greater value was the production of alcohol from potato skins. He was a charming and delightful dinner companion.

Ian Dale CChem FRSC
Glasgow, UK


We incorrectly stated that remdesivir is an anti-malarial drug (Chemistry World, July 2020, p9); it is in fact an antiviral. Thank you to Clinton Egbe for bringing this to our attention.

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