Physicists are lucky in that many of the fundamental principles of their subject have application in everyday life.

Brian Malpass

The Last Retort

Physicists are lucky in that many of the fundamental principles of their subject have application in everyday life, often in very unlikely places. Quantum mechanics, for example, can be applied to the higher reaches of financial theory, as in the development of the famous Black-Scholes equation for option pricing under stochastic volatility. Many renegade physicists make a handsome living doing this sort of thing in financial institutions, where they are known variously as gunsels or rocket scientists.

But what of chemists? Which of the principles that we absorb with our mothers’ milk can be applied to the workaday world? It is tempting to look to cooking for examples, but that would be tautological, for surely cookery is just applied chemistry. This is being demonstrated in the laboratory by such chemists as the gallant Frenchman, Herv? This, who is doing great things with a bunsen burner to promulgate the application of science to improving gastronomy. And chefs such as Raymond Blanc and Heston Blumenthal, who between them have more stars than Bollywood, are embracing chemistry daily with great success in their celebrated restaurants.

So perhaps we should come at this from a consideration of a selection of the better known tools of the chemist’s trade. But even that approach isn’t plain sailing. Take the law of mass action, for example. That might be thought to have relevance to the Riot Act of 1715, brought in by the British parliament to discourage unlawful assembly and civic turbulence, and traditionally read to potentially troublesome gatherings, for example chemistry students awaiting delayed exam results. But, alas, a moment’s thought will show it to be a faux ami of spurious pertinence, and in any case the act was repealed in 1973.

Similarly, the principle of the conservation of energy is another false cognate, having no real relevance to lagging your boiler or putting in double glazing.

Le Chatelier’s principle is more promising. You will recall that it states that if a constraint be applied to a system in equilibrium, those changes will take place that tend to remove the effects of the constraint. Apart from anything else, it remains the most succinct statement of the cussedness of inanimate objects. But, try as I might, I cannot think of what use it might be to someone who has to paper the back bedroom or revive a crashed computer.

But, fortunately, there is one bedrock of chemistry that does have commonplace applications. I refer to the concept of the rate determining step, which says that if you want to speed some process up, you should break it down into its constituent steps and tackle the slowest of them. Any other course is akin to polishing the cutlery on the Titanic. This venerable idea is of relevance to virtually every aspect of human life, which I shall illustrate by reference to a vital task: the making of that all important first cup of tea in the morning.

This apparently straightforward chore is rendered difficult by fact that a) the brain is still addled by sleep or the lack of it and b) the eyes are not yet opposite the holes. The steps, in no particular order, necessary for the production of the heart-starter, are: find a clean cup; get the milk from the fridge; trip over the cat; boil the kettle; put a tea-bag and a sweetener into the chosen receptacle; pour boiling water.

The layman will trip over the cat, find the cup, put in the tea bag, get the milk, trip over the cat again, then reach for the kettle only to find it stone cold. As a consequence, he will probably be found later by his wife, curled up with the cat on the back door mat sound asleep.

The chemist, on the other hand, even if hung-over, will instinctively seize upon the boiling of the kettle as the rate determining step and will unhesitatingly do it first. Isn’t science, and chemistry in particular, wonderful?