Alternative measurements, indigo and hot topics

Lord Lewis

From John Holman

Thank you for the tribute to Lord Lewis. I had the honour of receiving the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Lord Lewis award this year, and I read the piece with interest and affection.

One thing the article did not mention was Lewis’ support for education. When David Waddington and I were developing the Salters’ advanced chemistry course at the University of York in the 1980s, Lewis agreed to chair the advisory committee for this innovative project. He convened a committee of distinguished chemists who helped make sure that the new course reflected the frontiers of chemistry at the time. Since then, many thousands of students have taken the course, so his influence on young people’s learning of chemistry extends well beyond those he taught directly.

J Holman CChem FRSC

University of York, UK

Measuring members

From Clive Delmonte

As I was reading ‘In defence of metrics’ by Anthony Olejniczak, I found myself wondering what metrics we should choose for our very own Westminster–Whitehall nexus. What about these possibilities?

1 The number of MPs, on average, in the House after 5pm

2 The average number of votes cast for and against bills on the floor of the House

3 The number of successful petitions each year in the High Court for judicial review of Whitehall decisions

4 Michael Gove once said he wanted ‘outstanding headteachers’. How many outstanding leaders do we have in the House each year?

Any other suggestions from readers of Chemistry World would only add to the general merriment, I’m sure.

Clive Delmonte FRSC

Fakenham, UK

The bottom line

From Brian Eggins

I agree with Barrie Skelcher about the perils of privatisation (Chemistry World, August 2014, p39). There is no meaningful competition among electricity companies. They are all just in it for profit to their shareholders, whoever they may be.

Sadly the same applies to pharmaceutical companies who will not develop new antibiotics (see Anthony King’s article ‘Call for new models to pay for antibiotics’). It is a scandal that no company will develop new antibiotics because there is not enough profit. What is needed is a non-profit organisation, with government funding, (perhaps the Wellcome trust?) to take on this vital, if expensive, task. 

B Eggins FRSC

Rostrevor, County Down, UK

Indigo: independence and industry

From Swaminathan Sivaram

I read the editorial on indigo with interest. However, I think indigo cultivation in India had an even greater impact than its role in Indian independence. It gave birth to the global chemical industry.

Indigo plantations in Bengal date back to 1777. The arrival of the East India Company led to vast expansion of indigo cultivation in large parts of what is today the state of West Bengal. The planters mercilessly exploited the peasants, with practices not unlike slavery, causing severe indebtedness and penury amongst the farmers. After half a century of exploitation, the resulting discontent caused the indigo revolt of 1859. By 1868, the revolt had spread to large tracts of indigo farmland in eastern part of India. At that time, there was fervour of revolt in the air against the East India Company with the Sepoy mutiny having erupted in 1857. This unrest eventually led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India.

The revolt was ruthlessly suppressed by police and military forces, backed by the then British government and the land owners. Countless peasants were slaughtered. The revolt touched the core social fabric of Bengal with a huge wave of support to peasants from the Bengali middle class. Among the many expressions of support was a play titled Neel darpan (The blue mirror) authored by Dinabandhu Mitra in 1859. It was translated into English and caught the attention of readers in England, exposing the injustice meted out to peasants in India. 

At the end of the 19th century, India had close to 3000 square miles of land used for indigo cultivation and, at the beginning of the 20th century, exports to Europe were close to 20,000 tons a year. But the unrest caused frequent disruption of indigo supplies to Europe. Faced with this problem, Adolf von Baeyer began his exploration into the structure and synthesis of indigo. 

His first synthesis, from isatin and 2-nitrobenzaldehyde was reported during the 1870s and the Royal Society honoured Baeyer with its Davy Medal in 1881 for this discovery. This led to a flurry of activity towards developing an industrially viable synthesis of indigo. BASF developed a more practical method and began commercial production at Ludwigshafen in 1897 using aniline (whence the A of BASF) derived from coal tar as the starting material. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first industrial plant to produce a chemical synthetically. 

By 1910, the entire demand for indigo in Europe was met by industrial manufacture and all exports from India ceased. 

Thus, indigo not only played a pivotal role in the history of India, but in the history of chemistry and the chemical industry. 

S Sivaram FRSC

Pune, India

Bursting bubbles

From John Baldwin

Forgive me if I seem to be pouring cold water on a neat idea but the report ‘Bubble wrap could send lab costs packing’seems to assume that polyethylene packaging is composed of a single, inert material. 

It is possible that the researchers organised samples where the polyethylene contains no additives but the report doesn’t say so. Otherwise, polyethylene should be assumed to contain antioxidants and maybe UV stabilisers; neither of which is biologically inert. And what was in the bubbles beforehand?

J Baldwin CChem MRSC

Darlington, UK

Aye or naw?

I was disappointed that Angeli Mehta’s article on chemistry and the Scottish referendum was, judging by use of the third person pronoun in the title, assumed to be of no interest to readers living in Scotland. 

Can we expect a follow up article for us entitled ‘Now we’ve voted to go (or stay)’? 

M G C Baldry CChem MRSC

Haddington, UK

Tea treatise

From Norman Groocock

David Jones’ theory about the effect of hardness on the taste of tea is borne out by my own experience in the water industry. 

I worked as principal scientist in Derbyshire for many years and the sources of our supplies ranged from very soft moorland water from the upper Derwent Valley to hard water from limestone areas. We regularly received complaints that tea tasted awful from consumers who had moved – sometimes only a mile or two – from one area to another. 

We assumed that the calcium in the water reacted with one of the tea constituents – perhaps the polyphenols – to produce a different taste to the one they were used to. In fact, some tea manufacturers have a different product for the two types of water supply. Yorkshire Tea actually sell tea made specifically for hard water areas.

The comment about chlorination leaving chlorinated substances in drinking water can also be true. Where a significant amount of organic material is left in the water after treatment, several halogen-containing compounds can be present after chlorination. Moorland waters in particular may contain peat extracts, which lend themselves very readily to reaction with chlorine producing, among other things, chloroform and related haloforms. Activated carbon (which certainly in earlier days came from coconut shells) removes these to quite a low level to conform to the European standards so I would be surprised if they were detectable by the consumer.

Norman Groocock FRSC

Bakewell, UK

Up in smoke

From Clifford Jones

In his letter, John Twibell reports what I have myself long believed regarding spontaneous human combustion. That is, a human body can burn in a localised way, what Twibell calls ‘an unusual manner’, and that this has incorrectly been attributed to spontaneous combustion when ignition was in fact due to an external source such as a domestic fire. 

A reasonable comparison is with a candle, where in a human body the clothing is the analogue of the wick and the body fat, the candle wax. (Long before petroleum waxes became available animal fat was used to make candles.) 

Twibell also talks about the ‘enduring myth’ of spontaneous human combustion. He might have added that Charles Dickens invoked spontaneous human combustion in Bleak house; a rag-and-bone man called Krook dies in this manner. 

At a considerably earlier date than Bleak house, in 1825, the Manchester Guardian published a piece by a Dr Trail that reports the view that spontaneous human combustion is due to a ‘particular kind of oil in the blood’ and adds that the consumption of ‘ardent spirits’ promotes formation of the oil. That led to the view that spontaneous human combustion is promoted by over-indulgence in alcoholic liquor. 

Twibell notes that the BBC ran an episode on the matter of spontaneous human combustion in 1998. There was an earlier BBC broadcast on spontaneous human combustion, which I recall seeing on New Zealand television in early 1991. 

J C Jones FRSC

The University of Aberdeen, UK