From Geoff Cloke, Andrew Smith and Bob Allison

We were astonished to read the remarks made about chemistry at the University of Sussex by Professor Sir Richard Sykes (Chemistry World, September 2007). In particular, the statement: 

If chemistry is a drain, vice-chancellors have no choice but to deal with it. There’s no good people jumping up and down screaming "Oh terrible, [The University of] Sussex has closed its chemistry department" - they did it for the right reasons.’ is completely factually incorrect, or at best highly misleading. As we are sure the vast majority (although clearly not all) of the UK chemistry community is aware, the department of chemistry at Sussex has not closed - in fact, far from it. The university was able to find an alternative, constructive way forward and is in the process of building closer links between chemistry and biochemistry, and chemistry at Sussex has flourished during the last year. The chemistry undergraduate intake for this year has increased by more than 50 per cent over the last year, and we are currently top in the Guardian League Table for UK chemistry departments. The University has recently made five new, permanent faculty appointments in chemistry, and has invested ?700,000 in new NMR equipment and ?600,000 in lab refurbishments for chemistry during the last six months. 

The tone of the remarks is particularly galling, given the benefit accruing nationally to all UK chemistry departments in the form of increased funding for STEM subjects - a direct result of the important national debate stimulated by the discussions surrounding chemistry at Sussex last year. 

G Cloke FRS CChem FRSC, Professor of chemistry; 
A Smith, Head of chemistry and biochemistry; R Allison, Pro-vice chancellor for research

University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, UK

Ed:  Chemistry World would like to apologise for letting the error in the article stand without correction, and is happy to set the record straight


From Alan Richards

The cover article on ’food fraud’ (Chemistry World, September 2007) made interesting reading and highlighted a number of new and emerging techniques that are becoming available to food scientists to help prevent fraud.  

As President of the Association of Public Analysts in the UK, I was disappointed that no one from our association was invited to provide a comment or opinion on the subject. I have been watching the development of many new techniques over the last 10 years and am encouraged by the advances that have been made in detecting some frauds that a few years ago would not been thought possible.  

Public Analysts are the statutory officers appointed by local authorities under the Food Safety Act 1990 to test food on behalf of consumers and advise on matters of food safety. They are recognised as expert witnesses by courts and most prosecutions for food offences result from work done by Public Analysts.  

There is currently a huge public interest in healthy food and food labelling - fuelled by government policies that are trying to raise the awareness of food safety and better nutrition. However it is a fact that food fraud is becoming very sophisticated, complex and expensive techniques are needed. 

Unfortunately the UK is in the situation where the Public Analyst Laboratories are suffering from a major brain drain and a funding crisis. Over the last 10 years Public Analyst numbers have reduced from 80 to 40. In my opinion the UK consumer deserves better. Discussions are ongoing with the Food Standards Agency over how to avert the crisis that is surely coming. 

A Richards CChem FRSC, President, Association of Public Analysts,
London, UK


From Martin Humphrey

May I say how much I enjoyed the article on the Soxhlet extractor (Chemistry World, September 2007) and how I agree that most chemical apparatus is dull to watch. As a consequence it is not surprising that a Soxhlet extractor in full spate can entrance an audience of chemists. It is equally surprising that such an audience seems to be oblivious to its short-comings. The Soxhlet extractor cycles a very large volume of solvent in total and yet a portion of the substance to be dissolved often still remains in the thimble. Observation of what actually happens in and around the thimble rather than what happens to the siphon gives the explanation for its inefficiency. 

A better arrangement is to remove the siphon altogether (boo) and replace it with an open tube below the thimble. Preventing the rising solvent vapour from entering the central tube is done using a wad of cotton or glass wool or by incorporating a sintered glass frit. The powder to be extracted is either placed in a traditional thimble or directly into the extractor itself. Either way, the top must be covered to prevent the powder from splashing out. In some quarters this type of apparatus is referred to as a ’drug extractor’. 

A M Humphrey ARCS MRSC
Chorleywood, UK


From Martin Chaplin and Peter Fisher

We put together the ’Memory of water’ issue of the journal Homeopathy, the subject of Philip Ball’s recent column (Chemistry World, September 2007), to show the current state of play. It contained all the current scientific views representing the different experimental and theoretical approaches to the ’memory of water’ phenomena. Some may be important and others less so, but now the different areas of the field can be fairly judged. The papers mostly demonstrated the similar theme that water preparations may have unexpected properties, contain unexpected solutes and show unexpected changes with time; all very worthy of investigation. Although not the main purpose of the papers, we show the problems as much as the potential of these changed properties in relation to homeopathy.  

Ball skirts over the unexpected experimental findings that he finds ’puzzling’, so ignoring the very heart of the phenomena we are investigating and misinterpreting the issue. He backs up his argument with statements concerning pure water and silicate solutions that are clearly not relevant to the present discussion. Also, he uses Irving-Langmuir to prop up his argument. This is fitting as Langmuir dismissed the Jones-Ray effect, whereby the surface tension of water is now known to be reduced by low concentrations of some ions, as this disagreed with his own theories. Finally Ball finishes with the amazing view that he knows the structure of water in such solutions with great confidence; I wish he would share that knowledge with the rest of us.

M F Chaplin CChem FRSC, London, UK
P Fisher, Editor, Homeopathy, Luton, UK


From Robert Woodward

Philip Ball’s piece on homeopathy was most interesting. For many years I have believed and written that homeopathy is a system of healthcare appropriate to be overseen by religious bodies. The homeopathic system is not scientific and its leaders have been foolish to allow themselves to be drawn into the evidence-based systems advocated by adherents to modern medicine. Importantly, neither is it useless. Authorities such as the UK’s Medicines and healthcare products regulatory agency have made matters worse by agreeing to regulate homeopathy using criteria enforced by those totally dedicated to a system which has been fostered to suit the interests of multinational pharmaceutical companies. 

Sadly, Edzard Ernst’s studies of complementary medicine at Exeter University seem to have adopted the evidence-based idea too. Placebo healthcare is a reality and embraces much of what is termed complementary medicine including homeopathy and, dare I say it, herbalism. Professionals on both sides of the divide need to look carefully at the way forward before many useful healthcare systems and products are lost.

Perhaps a point relevant to my argument was made by Clifford Rosen (Chemistry World, September 2007), who said that there is a dearth of ’effective treatments for type 2 diabetes’. Most of the public, or politicians, would not believe that, because they have the expectation of a pill for every ill, thanks to the PR efforts of ’big pharma’. 

R Woodward CChem FRSC
Liss, Hampshire, UK