From David Tilbrook

The Knovel service the RSC has provided is exceptional! Congratulations. At last [RSC] membership is delivering something of real practical benefit to the practising chemists in the country.

I would make one comment though. You aren’t advertising this service very much and it is a real membership benefit. I found the link purely by chance on [the RSC] website. My friends and colleagues who are also members of the RSC have all made the same comments.

To put this in context: I almost can justify my £100 per annum RSC subscription simply in terms of access to this resource such is its value to me as an active research chemist.

Please do whatever you can to maintain this service in 2005 and into the future. It is the first practical step to make the kind of reference resource provided by the RSC library available to the wider membership. This is especially important for those who are a long way from the hardcopy resource in London.

Once again congratulations. I trust you will do all you can to maintain this service in future.

Dr D Tilbrook CChem MRSC
by e-mail


From Denis Wheatley

I read with interest Peter Skidmore’s comment on Sir Harry Kroto’s assertion that chemistry courses in teaching-only institutions are virtually worthless. 

Whilst I have never worked in an institution that quite deserved that name, I have worked in industry and in three [institutions] with different levels of research; one with quite a fair output, one with some research and a considerable amount of consultancy, and one with little of either. It was clear to me that the dullest and most uninspiring teaching took place in the institution with most research, and this has been confirmed to some extent by the subsequent careers of some of our students.

I would not claim that the experience of a single person is at all typical of the general situation, but I would suggest that research is not the only inspiration for teaching.

D Wheatley CChem FRSC
By e-mail


From Peter Plesch

A reply to your correspondent O Beckingham about jobs for chemistry graduates (Chem World, March 2004, p24). Take a wide view:-

1. Chemists are rarities and rarities are treasured and valued - if not in one country then elsewhere; with a British degree in chemistry one is welcome (almost) anywhere.

2. Chemistry, in addition to its intrinsic interest - has the enormous advantage of being the pre-eminent enabling science. With a chemical degree one is a different and rare member of a PTA, county council, marketing team, or scuba diving club, a different type of policeman or mother, with valuable contributions in most walks of life.

3. Sure, there are dull jobs which need to be done by chemists - the same goes in any other profession. But - in chemistry there are more sources of the fun which comes with innovation.

4. There are few, if any, other skills by which one can make the world and its products better, cheaper, safer. Fun is where you find it. And for some, like me, solving some of the puzzles of how Nature works is the greatest fun of all.

P H Plesch CChem FRSC
Newcastle-under-Lyme, UK


From Geoff Rayner-Canham

I was intrigued by the article Kiss of Life? in the February 2004 issue of Chemistry World. The author begins with the story of Sleeping Beauty: ’Until disturbed by the sperm, the female ovum lies effectively dormant ...The prince among sperm that first encounters the quiescent egg acts as a wake-up call and begins embryo development.’ Readers of this journal may be unaware of the controversy that has surrounded this analogy which anthropomorphises the biological process of egg fertilisation.

In the 1970s, the Sleeping Beauty metaphor was commonly used in biology. The science historian Londa Schiebinger has summarized the imagery: ’... in these sagas of conception the spermatic hero actively pursues the egg, surviving the hostile environment of the vagina and defeating his many rivals. The large and placid egg, like Sleeping Beauty, drifts unconsciously along the fallopian tube until awakened by a valiant sperm.’

The fertilisation process is thus interpreted in terms of the ’masculine’ aggressive behaviour of the sperm and the ’feminine’ passive role of the egg.

During the 1980s, however, a less passive role was assigned to the egg describing how its microvilli (small finger-like projections on its surface) captured and tethered the ’winning’ sperm (it is of note that the full-page illustration in Chemistry World shows the tip of the sperm clasped by the microvilli). In this conceptualisation, the egg was also genderised but as a ’femme fatale’ waiting to capture the wandering sperm.

Anthropologist Emily Martin has pointed out the dangers of the sperm-egg genderisation. She analysed a variety of accounts of discoveries relating to the fertilisation process and showed how each one gendered the sperm and egg using language more appropriate to romance novels than scientific research. By doing so, the scientific facts are lost or distorted in order to conform to the analogy.

In the last year, there has been a new twist to the story. It has been reported that the egg produces a chemical odorant. In this way, the few sperm that have survived the trek into the oviduct do not impact the egg by chance but are steered towards it by the molecular ’homing beam’ from the egg.

Even though the Chemistry World article points out the necessity of the calcium ion input from the sperm for egg cell division to start, it does seem that the egg, with its chemical attractant and its grasping microvilli, has a more active role in the fertilisation process than the Sleeping Beauty analogy - with its gender implications - would imply. In any event, the history of the egg and sperm story points out the implicit dangers of anthropomorphising biological or chemical processes.

G Rayner-Canham MRSC
Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Newfoundland, Canada


From Colin Russell

It would be a pity if readers inferred from the letter of R Levie (Chemistry World, March 2004, p22) that historians of chemistry were continually in dispute on matters as abstruse as the mediaeval question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. He complains that my article on Nicholson ignored the previous work of some Dutch chemists who subjected water to spark discharges. However, I am fully aware of their work. Ostwald’s history of electrochemistry, which he commends, fills two well thumbed volumes on my shelves. He is not even the first person to raise the issue, and my reply to another correspondent (Chem. Br., November 2003, p14) still stands. Everyone knows that electrolysis must involve passage of a direct current through electrodes immersed in a solution. Therefore our Dutch friends can be credited with ’enterprise: yes; electrolysis no’! Dr Levie also states that Nicholson and Carlisle did not collect the two gases separately. In which case how does he explain their claim to have ’decanted’ the two gases into two separate bottles, citing volumes for each? They even describe their apparatus.

Because I gave the standard attribution for the discovery of electrolysis does not mean it is right. But history, like chemistry, needs to be based on facts as far as they can be ascertained, and the facts in this case are pretty clear. Give credit where credit is due, and three hearty cheers for Nicholson (and Carlisle).

C A Russell CChem FRSC
Bedford, UK


Name withheld

Having recently read an article concerned with science/technology graduates moving from the EU to the US, I wonder, why do people move abroad? A colleague of mine finished his PhD and applied for a job in the UK and got offered ?18 500. Then he applied for one in the US and got offered $50 000 - point made! My partner and I also have degrees and PhDs in chemistry but this seems to have made us completely unemployable. If there is such a need for scientists then why did we have so much trouble finding work? We have both finally found work (but not a PhD level job) but after a year of searching, we both nearly gave up looking for a science job! If someone offered me a good job in the US on good pay, I would be off like a shot, because it doesn’t look as though I would ever get that here [in the UK].


From Ché Royce Seabourne

In an effort to answer the questions posed in the March 2004 issue of Chemistry World (p24), by P G Quartermain, I journeyed to the ever ’useful’ Google and typed in ’cooper laboratory Watford’.

The top result was the RSC’s online site - showing the original letter. Oh well, so much for the internet’s most popular search engine! So, I decided to look at the problem from a different perspective. I checked the FSA’s [Financial Services Authority] list of registered companies for the whole of Watford. There is no record of the Cooper Laboratory whatsoever.

By this point, my late-night research was coming to a grinding halt. But then inspiration struck. I decided to try an internet search engine other than Google! A radical strategy if I ever heard one. I did manage to find a Cooper Laboratory, for Economic Research, based in Watford. It seems unlikely that this is an unrelated company - so we might assume the chemicals were some kind of by-product. Some of the company’s publications go back to 1913, so that might date the indicators.

For the record - both chemicals are freely available from US suppliers!

C R Seabourne AMRSC
University of York, UK