Your thoughts on burnout, degradation and the breakdown of the periodic table

Better in moderation

I was sad to learn that work ethic and ‘world class’ science (whatever that is) have somehow become equated with long work hours (Chemistry World, September 2019, p25). Philip Ball quite rightly points out that excessively long work hours are neither particularly productive nor necessary in those contexts.

It is immaterial whether professors and supervisors, who have enormous influence over the success or otherwise of graduate students and postdocs, are encouraging excessive work practices or ‘simply pointing out the realities’ of life in academic research. The fact is they have a duty of care to protect the health, both physical and mental, and ensure the safety of all those working under their aegis. Employee burnout caused by excessive working regimes is a worrying and growing trend around the world, particularly in younger professionals. In addition, many workplace accidents are a result of human error, which is much more likely when people are under stress and tired.

Rather than fuelling these problems, professors and supervisors are ideally placed to reverse this trend, exerting their influence to moderate work behaviours. They might well find that work ethic and the quality of science are undiminished. The wellbeing of their staff will certainly improve.

Michael Hawkins CChem MRSC
Virginia, USA 

Weather or not

I hope that the claim of a 27,000 year life for organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells is not science fiction (Chemistry World, October 2019, p45). But that hope is based on the assumption that the OPV cells and the effectiveness of simulated weathering have improved beyond recognition from when I was involved in experiments on synthetic surfaces for outdoor use 50 years ago. Not to pour too much rain on the parade, but my conclusion then was that there was very little correlation between accelerated and natural weathering.

Accelerated weathering with intense UV, heat and simulated rain did increase the degradation rate, but this degradation was never seen on the naturally weathered product, even after 20 years. Equally, the accelerated weathering degradation was not much reproduced with natural weathering.

Extrapolating from 13% degradation after more than 68 days of simulated exposure to 20% degradation after nearly 10 million days of natural weathering is, for me, more than optimistic but I do hope it is true. Unfortunately neither I nor the authors will be around to decide if this ‘debunks common beliefs about the stability of organic materials’. Perhaps it is a pity that our own organic make-up is not OPV based.

Wilfred Anderson CChem MRSC
Thetford, UK 

Periodically useful

The recent editorial by Philip Robinson (Chemistry World, October 2019, p1) casts doubt on the future usefulness of the periodic table. I would maintain that it will always be important so that chemists can understand the relationships between elements, as opposed to just having a list of their names. When researching new compounds and wanting to make a similar but different one it must be useful to consider a related element.

The editorial implies that discovering the latest heavy elements threatens the future of the table. I would maintain that this is an unnecessary concern since I see no possible future use of these elements and they appear to me to be playthings for theoretical researchers. When our world has many serious issues that can impact our future existence I find it difficult to justify the enormous costs involved in making these elements that exist only for microseconds. 

Paul Harris MRSC
Welshpool, UK

Soupape, digested

I read Andrea Sella and Thony Christie’s article on ‘Papin’s digester’ with interest (Chemistry World, October 2019, p78). I was recently involved in managing a French government-funded research project studying the hydrothermal synthesis of minerals. The reactor that we employed was equipped with a pressure relief valve and the French word for this is ‘soupape’. So I am wondering if this is in tribute to the name of its inventor?

Mike Greenhill-Hooper CChem MRSC
Toulouse, France

Editor’s note: An extensive internet search into the etymology of ‘soupape’ suggests the word originated from ‘sous’ (‘under’) and ‘pape’ (‘jaw’). Thony Christie adds: ‘Papin is however very venerated in France and there is a statue of him on the facade of the Louvre – not with his pressure cooker, but with the piston of his steam engine.’

Best of the web

Alice Motion’s article on how outreach could help to increase the number of students applying to chemistry degree courses (Chemistry World, October 2019, p15) sparked a discussion about other barriers that make chemistry careers appear unattractive: