Readers discuss the meaning of life and compete to be the longest-serving RSC member

Representation for radiation

In his editorial (Chemistry World, September 2022, p1) Philip Robinson writes about the value of plants in the synthesis of complex compounds that, with the help of society (presumably science) ‘shape the world we live in’. Robinson briefly describes a photochemical process where the absorption of a photon by an individual molecule generates an astonishing array of chemical diversity using a limited set of transformations involving just photons, water and carbon dioxide; this perhaps is an over-simplification. Photosynthesis is certainly fundamental to the maintenance of life on planet Earth and well deserving of a place in the RSC`s list of representative groups of scientific disciplines.

In 1954 John Cockcroft published a monograph in which he suggested that radiation chemistry could be regarded as an extension of photochemistry, notwithstanding that the science deals with much more complicated processes initiated by both excitation and ionisation of a molecule. Following deformation, a resultant ionised molecule or a free radical reacts with its surroundings to generate a myriad of products that may have economic value or other uses, including that of medicine. I do not agree that radiation chemistry is a branch of photochemistry, if anything it is the other way round. However, in spite of being a principal scientific discipline in its own right, radiation chemistry has no specific group representation within the RSC listings. Instead it has been reluctantly accepted under the wing of the radiochemistry group, notwithstanding that it is a largely unrelated discipline.

Ignorance of a science that may be implicated in the origins of life itself has led to what I see as a bizarre decision by government to abandon radioactive waste to a repository deep underground, leaving future generations to deal with any unforeseen circumstance should containment fail or worse. For reasons of practicality and ethics I contend that disposal and abandonment of radioactive waste to a geological disposal facility as currently intended is both unrealistic and unnecessary. Much radioactive waste can be recycled or otherwise repurposed, and the rest can be effectively burnt in a neutron generator producing heat. Radioactive waste is an asset, not a curse!

David Bradley CChem FRSC
Liverpool, UK

Longest service?

I was interested in Frank Holland’s account of his professional life and in his membership of the RSC from age 16 to currently 83 (67 years).

I joined the Faraday Society, one of the bodies that formed the RSC, as a postgraduate student at Bristol University in 1951, aged 22. During the course of a long career I took out life membership (an excellent investment as it proved to be). I am now 93 so have 71 years of membership with a framed certificate for 70 years of membership to 2021. Any advances on that?

Ronald Dell FRSC CChem
Via email

Take for granted

I was interested to read Emma Pewsey’s article about PhD stipends. When I started my PhD at Imperial in October 1974 my Science Research Council (SRC) grant was £960, which today is worth £11,572, plus the cost of my season ticket. Students outside London received less. But then my weekly rent in a house-share in Wandsworth was about £8.

We were required to inform the SRC of other income, earned or unearned, and anything apart from teaching was deducted from the grant.

Tom Stevenson CChem MRSC
East Horsley, UK
Still representing the longest continuous family membership of the CS/RSC – 143 years and counting!

Escaping capture

July’s Chemistry World gives a double page to the large amount of effort being given to developing efficient methods of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and highlights the 4000 tonnes per year plant in Iceland. However, the probable futility of all these efforts is thrown into sharp focus by the news in the same issue that a coal mine in Russia is leaking methane into the atmosphere at a rate of 90 tonnes per hour (Chemistry World, July 2022, p6). Irrespective of the warming potential of the methane, when oxidised to carbon dioxide this is equivalent to around 2.17 million tonnes per year.

That’s just one mine, then there’s the melting permafrost to consider…

David Wilson
Newton-on-Ouse, UK

Solute searching

In the article Soil searching, Mark Fitzsimons makes the point that soil particles cannot hold nitrate because the oxide species in the soil are negatively charged and so are the nitrate ions. They therefore repel one another. Surely as important a reason for nitrate mobility is that no cation can be precipitated as the nitrate. All nitrates are soluble.

Mervyn Russen CChem FRSC
Via email

It’s alive!

So, Philip Ball reckons that James Lovelock was ‘one of the last of that breed’ of independent scientific thinkers. Equally, Vanessa Seifert tries to answer the question: ‘Are plants alive?’ While both people and plants are multicellular entities, it is now known that they coexist with a complex mixture of microbes, in turn begging the question as to what, exactly, is alive?

Having decided that a good retirement project would be to understand the nature of the enclosed intestinal microbiome, for convenience an initial option was to treat the whole mixture as if it had evolved as a single microbial community. Whether or not such a mixture of microbial pro- and eukaryotes can be classified as being a single entity that is alive in its own right, this approach has suggested a way in which the loss of gut–body mutualism allows for the development of obesity.1 Accordingly, I can assure Ball that the spirit of independent thought is alive and well and, moreover, comes equipped with a smartphone. 

David Smith CChem MRSC
Alnwick, UK


September’s crossword grid was misnumbered (Chemistry World, September 2022, p58); the first 5 down should have been 4 down.