Readers discuss whether air rifles or bomb disposal techniques are best for dealing with waste chemicals

Oh, shoot!

I was pleased to read Paul Roebuck’s letter on disposing of waste chemicals by shooting the bottles. It took me back to the mid-1970s, when I worked at Fisons Research and Development department in Loughborough, UK.

We had a similar solution for dealing with suspect bottled materials, only we had to use an air rifle. The chosen location was on land at the rear of the car park and we used a large metal tray employed for fire training. Our risk assessment was limited to firing away from parked cars and hiding behind a skip. We never had an explosion, even from dried out picric acid or very old ether with a deposit on the bottom of the Winchester. We carried many potentially labile materials through a large building in plastic buckets. Those were the days!

Roebuck mentioned the much-missed Colonel Shaw and I am sure many chemists of a certain age will remember his outstanding lecture (with lots of bangs) on explosives.

Tony Payne CChem MRSC
Ilkeston, UK

I can understand how a well-aimed bullet can be used to open an ampule or bottle from a distance. Very few universities have an open-air rifle range and I suspect that the operators of many outdoor ranges might not be happy about the use of their sites for the disposal of chemicals.

At one university, a bottle of diisopropyl ether was found that had solidified as a result of peroxide formation. The bottle was taken to a military rifle range by a group of soldiers who did not realise what they were dealing with. They proceeded to fire a bullet into the bottle from a distance. Instead of having to sweep up the broken glass, the sand dune that the bottle was sitting on disappeared. They then had a horrible realisation of the unnecessary risk they had taken when many of them travelled in the same vehicle as the innocent-looking bottle.

When I was a PhD student, one academic in quiet moments in the teaching lab told us about how he dealt with unexploded bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. If a bomb is dug up during building work, it is best to seal the area off and wait a few days. If it explodes during this time, then problem solved. If nothing happens, his next method was to tie a rope to the bomb and to use this to shake the bomb from a distance. His reasoning was that if the bomb contained a time fuse then jarring it might start the clock ticking again. Only after the bomb had been left a while would he want to consider other methods. I am sure that with a pulley, some rope and some ingenuity, it is possible to break an ampoule from a safe distance.

Mark Foreman MRSC
Gothenburg, Sweden

Lonsdale’s legacy

I read with interest the article by Marelene and Geoff Rayner-Canham about Polly Porter and her having been a ‘mentor’ of Dorothy Hodgkin (Chemistry World, May 2021, p36). I have been interested in the work of Hodgkin since I attended a lecture course on crystallography at the University of Leeds, UK, given by J H Robertson, once a member of Hodgkin’s research team at Oxford, in the early 1970s. A few years later I was present when Hodgkin gave a lecture at Leeds and Robertson, at the request of the vice-chancellor, gave the concluding remarks.

The Chemistry World article begins: ‘Everyone “knows” that the pioneering female x-ray crystallographer was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin’. The aim of this letter is not to dissent from that view but to mention another ‘female x-ray crystallographer’, Kathleen Lonsdale. She was born in 1903, making her seven years older than Hodgkin, whom she preceded by two years as a Fellow of the Royal Society. The International Union of Crystallography came into being in 1948 with Lawrence Bragg as its first president. Lonsdale became its president in 1966, and Hodgkin in 1972.

Judith Howard and Sofia Candeloro de Sanctis, both of whom had been research students with Hodgkin, went on to high academic positions in crystallography. It is recounted in the Georgina Ferry biography of Hodgkin, which is referred to in the Chemistry World article, that the simultaneous presence of Howard and Candeloro de Sanctis at Hodgkin’s hospital bed close to the end of her life caused Hodgkin’s son to enquire whether there is ‘a collective noun for female professors of crystallography’!

Clifford Jones FRSC
Chester, UK

Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham respond:

Professor Jones makes a good point. It was remiss of us not to have mentioned Kathleen Lonsdale as another pioneer female x-ray crystallographer. In fact, there were a significant number of female x-ray crystallographers in the early years. In our recent book, Pioneering British Women Chemists, we discuss them in the context of their mentors. Julia Sanz-Aparicio, in an article in Arbor, has provided an excellent update including some of the prominent (and oft-overlooked) later generations of women crystallographers.

Mourning Midgley?

UN World Environment Day having passed, I think Tom Welton’s June editorial could have been just a tad more damning of Thomas Midgley Jr. Describing his ‘notable chemical innovations’ of neurotoxic lead tetraethyl antiknock and ozone-depleting chlorofluorcarbons as ‘complicated’ seriously understates their environmental impact.

A more sober assessment of his catastrophic inventions described Midgley as having ‘had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.’ Praise indeed! Especially as another of his inventions, a Heath-Robinson-esque contraption, designed to assist him in his later poliomyelitis-disabled state, ended up strangling him to death.

One wonders whether, in some easily possible post-climatic dystopian future, Midgley will be among those cursed for their chemistry.

Lionel Milgrom CChem FRSC
London, UK

For all ages

In my 90th year, I confirm Alan Peacegood’s hope that there is another ‘wrinkly’ who feels that once a chemist always a chemist, and who finds plenty to provide interest, stimulation and enrichment in Chemistry World, even if some of it is now beyond the reach of those with my background. For me, it is a privilege that several universities here in Scandinavia frequently ask me to check the theses of their young doctorands both linguistically and factually and thus keep my chemical instincts alive.

Anthony Bristow CChem MRSC
Tullinge, Sweden