From Steve Jeffery

Readers intrigued by Katharine Sanderson’s review of Carl Djerassi’s play Calculus (Chemistry World, September 2004, p64) and the rivalry between Newton and Leibniz might also be interested in author Neal Stephenson’s hugely ambitious and entertaining alternate history, the three volume Baroque Cycle (QuicksilverThe confusion, and System of the world (William Heinemann, 2003-2004)) in which Newton’s rivalries with both Liebniz and Hooke are given prominence, as well as an explanation, of sorts, that combines Newton’s interest in alchemy and his apparently odd career move in taking on the position of Master of the Royal Mint.

Stephenson’s research into just about all aspects of the highly charged period around the end of the 17th century - with its rivalries and revolutions in politics, religion, commerce and scientific thought - is astonishingly broad and eclectic, taking in everything from cryptographic systems to the theory of monads, from adulteration of the coinage to (in one highly entertaining and improbable episode) the dangers of recovering phosphorus from the distillation of huge vats of human urine.

The author freely admits in interviews to taking frequent liberties with the period for the sake of propelling the whole though a rollicking adventure story, but much of the background to the period, including the author’s notes and annotations, and links to further research material, can be found at the equally ambitious user-editable website

S Jeffery MRSC
Kidlington, UK


From Barry Smith

Brian Malpass (Chemistry World, September 2004, p80) cites Le Chatelier’s principle as a succinct statement of the cussedness of inanimate objects but does not pursue its relevance to human behaviour.

Let us suppose that a government presents each new graduate with a bill for thousands of pounds. Some will remain in the UK and pay the new graduate tax. Others will avoid payment by living and working abroad. Have we considered the consequences of encouraging bright young people to emigrate?

B C Smith CChem FRSC
London, UK


From Peter Kirk

I am pleased that Trevor Kletz (Chemistry World, August 2004, p26) has raised the subject of the accuracy of press reports, as I too have had similar experiences. My favourite incident involved an inquest into the death of a workman in a factory fire. I gave evidence to the coroner on the source of the solvent vapour and its flammability and an electrical engineer described many of the potential sources of ignition of the vapour.

The headline in the local evening paper, that night was, ’Experts disagree on cause of death fire’. The article described how the two of us had given conflicting evidence on whether the solvent vapour or the source of ignition had been the cause of the fire. The young man who wrote that had stood only a few feet from me after the inquest and could have had his confusion clarified quite easily. He did, however, get a much bigger headline than he might have had with just ’accidental death’.

One solution is for chemists to write their own press releases, giving the information clearly and accurately, but remembering to add some interest to catch the imagination. I have tried this a number of times in a social context in the local press and it seems to work. Maybe the RSC could issue guidance to members on their preparation and use.

P G Kirk CChem FRSC
York, UK


From Robin Walls

Despite the vastly improved speed of communication, it seems the information we receive is no more reliable than it was in the Middle Ages. The letters highlighting the abysmal level of accuracy in the media (Chemistry World, August 2004, p26) make one wonder why these people continue to read newspapers? Surely it is more satisfying to read proper novels and collections of short stories or poetry.

If we are to popularise science by getting accurate information into the media we have to surmount a fundamental obstacle. Journalists are convinced every story (is there a Freudian hint in the use of this word?) has to have a human interest. This is contrary to the objectivity of the scientific method and represents a real difficulty in disseminating knowledge to the layman. It is difficult enough explaining a complex concept or process in everyday words without the additional requirement to interweave a personal thread. If the author doesn’t provide it, the journalist or interviewer will, with the inevitable distortion and omissions.

People, including chemists, are interested in human stories, of course. Perhaps the mark of a scientist is that we are also interested in how things work and in the physical sciences at least, believing they do so independently of our wishes. Hence our training and awkward prose style in technical papers. Perhaps we could start by making our refereed journals more readable.

R M Walls CChem FRSC
By e-mail


From Ted Bergers

I refer to RSC News, August 2004, p5, Karen Harries-Rees’ Editorial in Chemistry World, August 2004, p5, Katharine Sanderson’s article on Teaching the teachers on p44, and Michael Rasburn’s letter on p27.

First I would like to congratulate Rosemary Harper on being named Young Person of the Year by the UK chemical industry, and couple this with my sincere wish that she does not go the way of her immediate predecessor, Maranda Thompson, who fell victim to a round of downsizing at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

Well done, GSK! - just the signal that was needed at this time. Do we really wonder why chemistry has a recruitment problem, is failing to attract the brightest youngsters from our schools into a rewarding profession? Man-years of effort by sincere colleagues at the ’coal-face’, going into schools and talking about our work, creating the Chemical Industry Education Centre and now the National Science Learning Centre etc - all put into context by a single prominent redundancy.

But is there in fact a problem at all with attracting kids to study chemistry? If one considers numbers instead of percentages, there are about as many chemistry students now as in the 1970s, and they weren’t all needed then (as I know to my cost), and that was when our industry was far bigger and more varied than today. The handful of new organic PhDs needed annually by GSK, Pfizer, Lilly, AstraZeneca, Syngenta (who, incidentally, are just downsizing by 160 in R&D in Basel, Switzerland) and the here-today-merged-and-synergised-tomorrow science park start-ups can easily be supplied by Oxbridge and Imperial. The rest of our industry is moving to China and India, so where are the long-term perspectives for the majority of fresh graduates and postgraduates? Just take a look at the MBA-blasted sites [in the UK] at Billingham, Runcorn, Warrington, Oldbury, Huddersfield, Spondon, Beckenham, Welwyn for your answer.

The situation - real or perceived - is little different in Germany. The numbers of students starting a chemistry course at a German university fell to all-time lows in the mid-1990s (2871 in 1995), yet, contrary to what one would expect from statements over the years by ’interested parties’, bounced back to 6381 in 2003. However, of the 1394 new chemistry PhDs who graduated in 2003, only 351 found a job in the chemical industry (the most industry has taken on in the last 12 years was 728 in 2000). Yet if we extrapolate from previous experience we can expect the annual production of PhD chemists to rise continuously to about 2800 by the year 2013.

Will recruitment increase at all? How can it? MBA-types are wreaking damage on industry. A marginally chemical example: a few years ago all indigenous coking plants were closed, these ostensibly being hopelessly uneconomic against imports from China. Now ’they’ are whingeing because the Chinese are not only using all their own coke, but have the temerity to buy up the rest on the world market as well, so Germany can’t make the steel to supply the car factories ’they’ are busy transplanting to Poland, Czech Republic, Portugal.

Hoechst itself has virtually ceased to exist, and spawned a myriad successor companies permanently racked by rounds of downsizing; the final act on Aventis has just opened. Bayer is following suit. So long as ’captains of industry’ are unable to see beyond the current quarter’s balance sheet, and catch pneumonia when a fund manager sneezes, our profession (and not just ours) will have a problem.

Specialists need reasonable salaries and long-term prospects, otherwise who can blame our brightest youngsters if they choose generalist degree subjects. And if, contrary to all (my) expectations, there is ever a shortfall of chemists, then you can always recruit ’em in Germany, because we’re going to have lots to spare.

T Bergers


From Paul Hughes

With Muppets Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker, being voted the country’s favourite screen scientists (see p15), would a new advertising campaign involving the two scientists help recruit more students to study chemistry?

P Hughes AMRSC
Coleraine, Northern Ireland


From Trevor Kletz

The obituary of John Slater in the Daily Telegraph of 21 August included the following: ’His maternal grandfather held the living of Fernhurst, West Sussex, and was once conducting a service when a chemical reaction caused by loose matches and a throat lozenge in his pocket set fire to his cassock.’

Some old types of matches could readily ignite by friction with each other. I remember as a boy tossing a box of matches to someone and they all ignited. But is there something in throat lozenges that makes ignition more likely?

T A Kletz CChem FRSC
Cheadle, UK


From Bernard Mather

Professor Colin Russell appears to have made a slip in his otherwise excellent article on Glauber  (Chemistry World, September 2004, p46). The old name for hydrochloric acid is ’spirits of salts’, whereas ’aqua fortis’ is concentrated nitric acid, and ’aqua regia’ a mixture of concentrated nitric and hydrochloric acids, which dissolves gold by a mechanism as yet unelucidated.

B V Mather CChem FRSC
By e-mail


From G A Taylor

In the June issue of The Garden, the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, potassium bicarbonate is reported to have been approved as a fungicide effective against powdery mildew at a maximum concentration of two per cent. Protective clothing is recommended when applying the solution.

In the July issue, it is stated that, as protective clothing is needed, it is restricted to professional horticulture and is unlikely to be licensed for use by amateur gardeners who cannot legally use it for disease control. Is there really a hazard in the use of this substance or is this just another example of irrational fear of anything labelled ’chemical’?

G A Taylor CChem FRSC
By e-mail