You discuss the beauty of chemistry and laboratory dangers

A beautiful subject

When I was a student, my principal motivation was not to learn about chemistry – it was to pass examinations. At that stage I had no clear idea what a career in chemistry might be like.

Later, in my working career, I used instrumental methods of analysis to provide results which enabled me to support customers, develop products and control quality. The instruments were meticulously maintained and calibrated, but I was kept too busy by daily pressures to think about the fundamental chemistry underlying the techniques involved.

When I retired from work in 2011, I bought a modern textbook of organic chemistry so that I could finally read chemistry for its own sake. Maybe I bought the wrong textbook, because it didn’t really work. It wasn’t until 2014 that I learned about becoming a STEM ambassador. Only then did I begin to realise how remarkable chemistry is through talking about my subject with students in schools and colleges.

For the past two years, whilst continuing with outreach activities, I have been helping three of my grandchildren prepare for their GCSEs and A-levels. I often find myself saying to them ‘Isn’t that amazing?’

It has taken me more than 50 years to truly realise the wonder of my subject and to be captivated by, for example, the majesty of the molecules synthesised routinely by nature. But I got there in the end – it just took the eyes of children to enable me to see the beauty of chemistry.

David Neadle CChem FRSC
Walsall, UK

Voice of the RSC

I have read two items in the news recently that were related to chemistry. The first concerned chlorinated chickens from the US. Chlorine is a very effective disinfectant, and I see no problem in its use to prevent salmonella in foodstuffs (with obvious safe guards), which can be a real problem in supermarket chickens. The other item described the use of nitrous oxide as a recreational drug of choice for young people. I know which I consider more dangerous.

The Royal Society of Chemistry should come off the fence, get involved with the real world and express opinions on such everyday matters.

Tom Griffiths FRSC
Harpenden, UK

The dangers of cooling

While I enjoyed Chemjobber’s enthusiastic advocacy of heroic cooling measures to control reaction exotherms (Chemistry World, December 2018, p41), please bear in mind the danger of over-cooling. This suppresses the reaction and thus all heat generation, leading to a self-reinforcing downward spiral of the temperature of the flask’s contents to that of the cooling bath, while successive aliquots of added reactant sit unreacted in the vessel. Random local warming – or the assumption that cooling can be discontinued because the reaction is complete – can cause a runaway exotherm. Fatalities have resulted.

Christopher Clayton
Chester, UK

Hooked on chemistry

Since retiring from teaching, I spend time giving talks to local interest groups on a variety of topics. Recently, I spoke to the Robert Hooke Society, based on the Isle of Wight, UK, on 17th century chemistry. In response to various articles appearing in Chemistry World, I decided to digress and move forward in time to consider the periodic table. Boyle, of course, wrote extensively on elements but in his most well-known work, The Sceptical Chymist, he did not actually get around to naming one. Thus I was in a position to mention the work of Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. Most of the audience were not scientists and seemed to appreciate my attempt to introduce the periodic table 150 years after its inception.

During question time, it was reported that a member of the society had been inundating the governor of the Bank of England with her suggestion that Hooke should figure on the back of the new £50 note. I chose to disagree and, with the new periodic table on the screen behind me, suggested William Ramsay for the part for his work on establishing a new group for the table. Interestingly, the small number of scientifically trained members went not for Stephen Hawking as might be suspected, but for Paul Dirac!

Nick Minns CChem MRSC
Ryde, UK

Mercury toxicity

The article on the dangers of dimethylmercury (Chemistry World, April 2019 p71) highlights the importance of knowing one’s chemistry history as well as having current practical knowledge. In the early 1970s, the UK’s deputy government chemist Jim Foreman was known for sharing his broad chemical knowledge with us juniors at LGC, and it was from him that I learnt how dangerous organic mercury compounds are.

At the time, there was serious concern at the levels of mercury in fish and some oily fish products were withdrawn from sale. While there may only be two recorded laboratory deaths as a result of dimethylmercury toxicity, thousands have died in Japan as a result of Minamata disease, a neurological condition caused by severe mercury poisoning as a result of industrial pollution.

Peter Baker CChem FRSC
Great Missenden, UK