Readers reminisce about a smelly interview question and curl up with their favourite arrow-based textbook

Electrode synthesis

I was delighted to read the article on organic electrosynthesis. It is a subject that I agree has been somewhat overlooked in recent years and is long overdue for a revival.

When I was involved in this field in the late 1970s with the Southampton University group, we were impressed by the possibilities of fine control, versatility, cleanliness and freedom from spent reagent in the work-up. These advantages were not lost on our industrial contacts. However, our use of expensive precious metal electrodes was seen as a serious drawback for scale-up to industrial plant size. Accountants have a strong presence in commerce.

The question of whether a more economical, less noble electrode material would suffice was rarely considered at the time, so focused were we on the range of chemical transformations now possible.

Whereas for some electrochemical transformations platinum may well be the only viable choice, it is very likely other reactions may be more versatile in their electrode options. After all, the Monsanto Baizer process for industrial adiponitrile production traditionally uses a lead cathode.

I feel that it would be most useful to consider alternative electrode materials as part of electrosynthetic studies. I have been excited to read of the large range of newer electrode materials being reported in recent literature for environmental applications, for example for carbon dioxide reduction. There would be merit in including some in the list of electrode candidates alongside the obvious list of noble metals.

I have the impression that this is a branch of chemistry for which we have only just begun to unlock its possibilities, and I commend it to any group tempted to explore it.

David Coe MRSC
St Neots, UK

Medicine is the best medicine

I was interested by the letter from Malcolm Macqueen. I appreciate the need to reduce waste and pollution, particularly in light of recent studies about pharmaceutical contamination of watercourses.

However, it seems a little unlikely that the NHS can rapidly sever its connections with the corporate ogres generally referred to as ‘big pharma’. All else aside, there seem to be a great many people who currently require the products of these companies to maintain a reasonable quality of life, and that is before we get on to the recent vaccine developments which, we are led to believe, have saved many thousands of lives in the UK alone.

A great deal of effort would be required to replace these assorted ‘white pills and sugary medicines’ with preparations based on organically grown herbs, and finding places to cultivate them might prove challenging. Perhaps we should consider converting our hospital car parks to physick gardens after the manner of earlier centuries, and thereby also reducing the carbon signatures of staff and visitors’ cars.

Duncan McDougall MRSC
Yorkshire, UK

Pass the smell test

I enjoyed Derek Lowe’s article ‘Scents and sentimentality’, and was reminded of my all-time favourite interview question, posed to me by Geoffrey Pilcher at the University of Manchester in 1969.

As a fresh-faced sixth-former, I was ready to be interviewed for a place on the BSc honours chemistry course and was met by the Prof. We took the lift and chatted briefly, then stepped into the laboratory in which he had a small office. It was a typical laboratory, in all the ways that you might expect. I braced myself for the upcoming grilling.

‘Hmm…’ said the Prof as we crossed the laboratory. ‘That’s an interesting smell. How might you synthesise that?’

The interview had begun.

David Rudd FRSC
Buntingford, UK

Arrows of pleasure

I very much enjoyed Philip Ball’s piece ‘A century of curly arrows’ and his reference to Peter Sykes’ invaluable textbook A Guidebook to Mechanism in Organic Chemistry replete with its many curly arrows. He rightly lauds Robert Robinson’s key role in championing this terminology. As an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1960s, where Robinson had held the Waynflete Chair of Organic Chemistry until 1955, I encountered a number of staff members who had worked alongside him. One recalled an intense rivalry between Robinson and Christopher Ingold, head of chemistry at University College London until 1961. Ingold was widely regarded as the architect of the systematisation of the terminology of organic reaction mechanisms, but it seems he did not approve of curly arrows. My source told me that he was heard to say that ‘curved arrows never hit the mark!’ Does anyone else know this story, or is it apocryphal?

Derek James Chadwick CChem FRSC
Via email

Philip Ball’s article reminded me of my student days studying for my Graduate of the Royal Institute of Chemistry qualification. I remember sitting in front of an amplifier listening to a 70s pop group during a public performance and reading Peter Sykes’ A Guidebook to Mechanism in Organic Chemistry. I was fascinated by its content. The curly arrow indicating the movement of an electron pair was so logical. I wanted to learn more so I bought a book by Jerry March, Advanced Organic Chemistry, Reactions, Mechanisms and Structure. I still have that book as I cannot part with it.

After graduating from the Royal Institute of Chemistry I went on to complete a doctorate in synthetic organic chemistry. My thesis contained many reactions in the synthetic routes. I used the humble reaction arrow from reagents to products throughout. I loved teaching mechanisms to students. Thanks to Ball for pleasant memories.

Alan Jefferson CChem FRSC
Via email 

Flex those research muscles

Some readers may find the article on muscle function rather esoteric for a chemistry magazine. However, those of us afflicted in later life by the very rare, but life-changing, condition resulting from local muscle failure and known as dropped head syndrome, will be pleased by the research interest, hoping that it may lead to some form of treatment. Having your (surprisingly heavy!) head resting on your chest unless held up by a neck brace of some sort is, to say the least, pretty inconvenient!

John Davis FRSC
Hertfordshire, UK


The answers to clues two and three of April’s science scramble required an additional letter ‘t’ that was not carried into the answers of the following clues. Well done to readers who managed to solve the puzzle despite our best efforts to throw you off!

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