From comments on fascinating fungus, to the discussion of spiritual science and charity in the lab.

Fascinating fungus

In response to the April 2013 issue of Chemistry World, I would like to thank you for making the magazine so accessible to the lay community.

As the first member of my family to study science, or even attend university, I sometimes find it difficult to communicate that my passion for chemistry is fuelled by, among other things, its many everyday applications. However, after reading the latest issue of your magazine, my mother was surprised that chemistry is at the centre of natural and biological processes and not just an abstract concept.

The article ‘Deadly mushroom chemistry’ was of particular interest to her, as she is originally from a farming background and would often spend her summers picking wild mushrooms.

She seemed to be thoroughly fascinated that chemistry determines whether mushrooms are safe or dangerous to eat. In fact, by the end of the magazine, she too was of the opinion that chemistry is ‘the central science’.

I have been reading Chemistry World since I began university and I have always found the articles both informative and accessible to someone at the early stages of their scientific career, even though they are designed for a technical audience.

It really is fascinating to read about concepts that we study in lectures being applied to scientific research on a daily basis. Please keep up the good work.

C Toomey

National University of Ireland

Charity begins in the lab

Philip Ball’s article ‘Using used lab equipment’ raises the issue of surplus or redundant equipment in universities. 

Readers may be interested to know that, as far as secondary schools are concerned, there is a charitable organisation, LabAid, that recycles such equipment and sends it to schools in developing countries. Mostly, the equipment we are concerned with is very elementary – test tubes, safety spectacles, ammeters, low voltage power packs, lenses, mirrors and prisms, microscopes, dissecting instruments – so what most universities have to offer would not be appropriate. But perhaps a group in universities could set up a similar scheme to help higher education in developing countries?

P Borrows CChem FRSC

Buckinghamshire, UK

BPA not bottled

In the article ‘Endocrine disrupting chemicals under fire’, there is a rather misleading photo and caption that states ‘Bisphenol A is commonly found in plastic bottles’. Most bottles are made from polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinylchloride and polyester, none of which contains bisphenol A (BPA). 

BPA is used for making epoxy resins, used for interior can coatings, and for polycarbonate resins used for making CDs and DVDs. It was used in baby bottles, but not any longer. 

K Walker

By email

Spiritual science

John Hedley Brooke, interviewed by Katharine Sanderson, highlighted aspects of the spiritual side of science. Many scientists of earlier generations such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and Joseph Priestley acknowledged a spiritual dimension to their lives and work. A century ago, one noted Glasgow physics professor would commence his first lecture of the day with prayers, a custom still practised in many UK schools into the last century. 

John Tyndall, who died in 1893, is reported to be the first man to explain satisfactorily why the sky is blue and how gases absorbed infra-red radiation. Tyndall declared the context of his studies when he said: ‘What are sun, stars, chemistry, geology, mathematics but pages of a book whose author is God? I want to know the meaning of this book, to penetrate the spirit of this author!’ Perhaps these earlier scientists had embraced a spiritual dimension of life which is awaiting re-discovery?

D Morgan MRSC

Worcestershire, UK

Selective memory

You recently reported on the work of Lee Cronin. You said that ‘Cronin showed that he could alter the progress of a reaction by simply changing the architecture of the reaction vessel, for example using different chamber sizes, and then showed that the reaction vessels could play an active role in a chemical reaction’. 

In fact, Cronin did not start with the same concentration of reactants in the two vessels because one reactor vessel was not large enough to accommodate the initial charge (rather unusual logic I suggest). Any chemical engineer or chemist, I would think, knows that if you change the initial concentrations of reactants, the reaction selectivities will change (except for the case of identical reaction orders). As for a reaction vessel playing an ‘active role’ in a chemical reaction, we have for decades been able to describe heat transfer and mixing within reactors. Coupled with a knowledge of kinetics we can predict local concentrations, temperatures and selectivities.

Are you suggesting there is something reaction engineers have missed?

I Metcalfe CChem FRSC
Newcastle University, UK

Open access appeal

I strongly support open access (OA) publishing both for the benefits to the science community and from an individual perspective, but I appreciate that it is complicated and will take time. As a retired scientist, there is some research that I pick up in articles where I like to follow up by reading the papers mentioned. Without easy access to a university library this is often impossible and I resort to contacting an author and begging a copy. While this has never been refused, it should not be necessary.

In this context, I was staggered to read remarks attributed to Tom Welton of Imperial College London that ‘even minimal administrative burdens for OA would discourage researchers unless they can be convinced it is in their interest’. These researchers need to remember that it is taxpayers who fund much of the research in the UK and that it is very much in their interest to make the results of this research freely and easily available to us.

I hope that in time the research councils will make OA publication a requirement of funding as part of the impact statement.

M Welch FRSC
Warwick, UK

Konrad Singer (1917–2013)

On 14 January, Konrad Singer, emeritus professor at Royal Holloway College, UK, passed away at the age of 95. Singer was the first scientist in the UK to carry out Monte Carlo molecular dynamics (MD) simulations and made important contributions to the field.

Singer was born in 1917 in Bohemia, then part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire. At the time of the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, Singer was nearing completion of his third year of a chemistry degree at the University of Vienna. Singer was able to escape to the UK and continue his studies, but this process required a sponsor – a role undertaken by a remarkable humanitarian, Marian Dunlop, who had not previously met him. Support for refugee students was funded locally by whip-rounds among other students. The local arrangement in this case was the initiative of a young Glasgow lecturer, Alec Cairncross.

Singer took his PhD at Glasgow in 1941 and for the remainder of the second world war worked as an industrial chemist. In 1947 he obtained a post at Royal Holloway College, where he remained until his retirement in 1981. Singer met his life companion, Jean, shortly after moving there and their partnership in life and science continued until Jean passed away in 1990.

Singer worked on the theory of stochastic reactions, and then quantum chemistry. He generalised the application of Gaussians to quantum chemistry problems, as proposed by Samuel Francis Boys, and, after a friendly meeting with Boys, the two published their findings independently – but back-to-back – in 1960. Both papers are still cited about equally.

In the early 1960s, Singer turned his attention to the molecular simulation of liquids by classical techniques, then a truly pioneering step in the UK. He published three papers in which Monte Carlo was used to calculate the thermodynamic properties of argon. One innovative feature of the work was the introduction of the method of ‘histogram reweighting’. The method was rediscovered some 20 years later, and subsequently improved: it now plays a major role in the numerical study of phase transitions and rare events.

Singer then turned his attention to binary liquid mixtures. At about the same time, Les Woodcock started work on a PhD with Singer – a Monte Carlo study of molten potassium chloride, which turned out to be the first successful use of molecular simulations to study a molten salt. The work demonstrated very clearly the importance of charge ordering in determining the structures of such systems. Their first paper had an immediate, wide-ranging impact on the physical chemistry of molten salts, and eventually ionic liquids generally. It has also been a major influence on the subsequent explosion of MD simulations applied to real molecules, ionic systems and even water and solutions; the methodology is still widely used some 45 years on.

This very condensed summary shows just some of the ground-breaking contributions that Singer made to chemistry. It cannot possibly do justice to Singer as a person: gentle, cultured and averse to all bias and prejudice. His is a lasting legacy, in the UK and abroad. He will be greatly missed by those who knew him.

D Frenkel, P Gardner, D Heyes, I McDonald, W Smith, L Woodcock
By email