From Dr G J White

The discovery of the role of the messenger PLC zeta as described in John Parrington’s article Kiss of life? (Chemistry World, February 2004, p38) is an intriguing and possible part of a universal mechanism having a wider perspective. The article did not say if calcium oscillations normally occur within the fabric and function of the sperm itself. Once the fertilised egg has been activated by PLC zeta, do calcium oscillations carry on through all cell divisions until in the embryo manifest in the specialised action of heart muscle? If all this is so, it would imply conservation of life’s timebase (heartbeat) in mammalian reproduction.

G J White CChem MRSC
West Lothian, UK

From Dr Barrie Mellor

I don’t think that the format of the RSC’s magazine is nearly as important as its content. A trend which has been continuing for some time, and reached an all-time high in February’s edition of Chemistry World, is the extent to which biochemistry and pharmacy have hijacked the magazine. This trend really has gone too far, and I for one feel simply robbed.

B Mellor CChem FRSC
By e-mail

From Peter Brackley

I refer to the article in The Times [17 January 2004] which described the proposal by the [UK] government to displace the five learned societies, including the RSC, from Burlington House and fill it with civil servants.

I have written to my MP and hope that the Society will mount a vigorous campaign against this dreadful idea.

P Brackley CChem FRSC
Battle, UK

From Dr Robert de Levie

In a nicely illustrated three-page spread under the title Enterprise and electrolysisChemistry in Britain in its August 2003 issue celebrated the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Nicholson who, according to the subtitle, discovered electrolysis. Nicholson certainly described electrolysis at an opportune moment, just after Volta announced his pile in his 1800 letter to the Royal Society. But electrolysis had been discovered a decade earlier, by two Dutchmen, Peats van Troostwijk and Deiman, and there can be no doubt that Nicholson was fully aware of that earlier work: he had republished, in his own jour-nal, its elaborate verification by George Pearson FRS, and even translated this work in German. After reading Volta’s letter, Nicholson quickly repeated the Dutch experiment (but, instead of their carefully deaerated, distilled water, with water from the New River, by then a one-and-a-half-centuries-old open channel providing London with Hertfordshire water), and broadcast the results in his own journal and in Gilbert’s Annalen der Physik. He just did not refer to the earlier work.

The Dutch experiment did not allow the separate collection of hydrogen and oxygen because spark discharges reverse their polarity repeatedly, thereby mixing the electrolysis products at the electrodes. With their source of direct current, Nicholson and Carlisle could have collected and analysed these two gases separately, but they did not do so. Thus they added nothing beyond the use of Volta’s pile instead of the less efficient static electricity generator.

Ostwald’s 1896 textbook of the history and theory of electrochemistry gives a de-tailed description of the Dutch experiments. Among more recent references, I recounted the experiment in J. Electroanal. Chem., (1999, 476, 92) and Snelders (Ambix, 1979, 26, 116) described its role in converting phlogistonists to the chemical theory of Lavoisier.

R de Levie
Bowdoin College, Brunswick, US

From Dr Edmund Potter

It was instructive to peruse the colourful article by David Birkett and Alan Crampton in Chemistry in Britain, October 2003, pp.22-24. Evidently, food packaging in plastic film has advanced remarkably in recent times.

One comment I would make on the permeability of polymers arises from the authors’ Box 1 (entitled Barrier Polymers on p23). Referring to factors on which the transmission rate of oxygen depends, the authors correctly mention several, including humidity. However, it may not be generally appreciated that conditions can arise where it is relevant to consider polymer permeability to oxygen in counter-diffusion to water or water vapour.

This situation arose, for example, in an analytical context when g/L levels of dissolved oxygen in water were being measured, and the exacting analytical procedure stood to become much easier to perform if polymers in flexible tubing form could be used. The question was: were any non-composite polymers available that would not transmit sufficient atmospheric oxygen to interfere with the analysis? The answer was ’yes’, provided water transmission (outwards) was swift enough to exclude oxygen that would otherwise have penetrated the tubing wall inwards and thereby invalidated the analysis.

E C Potter CChem FRSC
Kariong, Australia

From Prof N Sheppard

I read with interest the ’comment’ editorial in the last issue of Chemistry in Britain [December, 2003]. You were frank about the difficulties of anticipating the wishes of your readers but by implication unnecessarily modest about CiB’s achievements over its nearly 40 years of publication. It always had to serve a very wide range of personal interests from those working in schools, universities, commerce, industry and public or government laboratories; and with a monthly publication-interval it could hardly be expected to make many ’scoops’! I consider that in many ways, within its ’in Britain’ brief, those who presented and devised the lively contents of Chemistry in Britain had much to be proud of.

The replacement of CiB by Chemistry World implies a natural evolution to a successor which will consider chemical topics in geographically wider contexts as is appropriate for an increasingly globalised environment. I hope that CW will not be afraid to air controversial points of view, for much is changing in the relationships between the sciences and the public, and between the academic sciences and commercial industry, and these changes could (and should) be subjects for vigorous discussion. As was to be expected, the chemists (those from the UK included) have recently been particularly active with increased academia/industry interactions. There is, for example, a particular concern to build on and to continue these but in a context which retains the objectivity traditionally associated with academia and expected of it by the public. In this time of changing relationships I suggest that occasional articles on the philosophical or sociological aspects of science - if sometimes likely to initiate vigorous debate - would be of particular value if they could stimulate measured responses from those who actually have the experience of scientific work.

I offer a warm ’goodbye’ to Chemistry in Britain and give an equally warm ’welcome’ to Chemistry World.

N Sheppard CChem FRSC
Norwich, UK

From Charles Reid

I greatly enjoyed Maria Burke’s article on Herbal Healing (Chem. Br., December 2003, p27). I wonder how many people know that the common onion takes away the sting and swelling from bee stings. I learnt this from my chemistry master at school in Lancashire in 1942. His daughter had been stung at the back of the mouth by a wasp while eating a jam sandwich. They rushed to a nearby farmhouse and the farmer’s wife made her eat some raw onion. The swelling that would soon have choked her, immediately went down and the sting abated.

Over the years I have been stung by, bees, wasps and hornets and on every occasion have applied a slice of raw onion, which in seconds has taken away the sting and prevented any swelling.

I wonder if Phytopharm have looked at this natural product. Perhaps Maria Burke would like to comment.

C L Reid CChem MRSC
Vaucluse, Australia

From Oliver Beckingham

I have read many articles in Chemistry World, and its predecessor, in which chemists have voiced their concern over the falling number of chemistry students. I am a chemistry student (2nd year of an MChem course at the University of Liverpool) and as such I feel I can say why there are [so] few applicants to chemistry degrees. There is one major reason: jobs. Students coming out of A-levels do not perceive there being any good jobs in chemistry. Most of them think chemists work as either pharmacists in chemists shops, selling plasters to people and fulfilling prescriptions; or as technicians, testing the purity of compounds and other seemingly monotonous work. Chemistry is seen as being both boring and poorly paid. Thus bright scientifically minded people often chose to do medicine or biochemistry as these jobs seem to be a lot more interesting and better paid. Even for those of us doing chemistry as a degree, jobs are a major concern.

I have for the past few months been trying to acquire a work placement because I am on a sandwich course. In that time I have kept an eye on the jobs available to chemists. This number seems worryingly low, jobs do not seem to be advertised in any newspapers (local or otherwise) and even the RSC publications seem to have very few jobs suitable to newly qualified chemists. I know of people who have left their [chemistry degree] course simply because they do not believe that they will get a job at the end of it. Do we have it wrong or are things really that bad?

O Beckingham
University of Liverpool, UK

From P G Quartermain

For several years now, I have had two small tubes of indicators, bromo phenol blue and bromo cresol purple. The tubes measure about 5cm long by 1cm diameter, and have cork stoppers. The labels on the tubes show that they originated from ’Chemical By Products Limited, The Cooper Laboratory, Watford’. The names of the indicators have been typed individually on the labels and not printed.

My feeling is that these chemicals are at least 50 years old, and may even go back as far as the 1920s. I would be very interested if anyone could give me a possible age for these indicators, and also let me know what happened to the Cooper Laboratory.

P G Quartermain CChem FRSC
Worcester, UK