In the light of ongoing financial problems faced by most UK chemistry departments.

Paul Kelly

Witch way to pay

In the light of ongoing financial problems faced by most UK chemistry departments, and in view of the dwindling numbers of students expressing an interest in standard chemistry courses, it’s high time that some new ideas were aired. Although departments have certainly become more inventive in their attempts to attract interest, there is still scope for a few new courses. First off, how about riding the wave of interest engendered by Harry Potter, Buffy and the like by introducing Chemistry with Occultism (UCAS course code F666). This has everything going for it; and let’s face it, a couple of pentagrams and a tub or two of low grade sulfur costs a lot less than a set of new fume cupboards. Of course the connection between chemistry and occultism is nothing new, and was at its height in the age of alchemy; but even after the advent of scientific understanding there were still adherents, such as Allan Bennett (1872-1923). Bennett trained as an analytical chemist before entering into that cavalcade of mystics, charlatans and well-to-do nutcases that was the Golden Dawn. Joining this occult order in his early twenties he rose through the ranks, tutoring the infamous Aleister Crowley along the way. Eventually Buddhism beckoned and Bennett took a more salubrious path. Crowley, on the other hand, did not. Mind you, for someone dubbed ’the wickedest man in the world’ he offered some surprisingly lucid, gentler comments on the science: ’I wonder whether all modern chemistry has not taken the wrong road - when they began to analyse.’ wrote Crowley in 1939, ’.to weigh, to measure. It was the "unknown impurity" in Jekyll’s ingredient which did the trick. Why should we not have a method allied to Nature’s own methods, at least in all organic matters? Synthetic musk and gin are frauds’.

Away from matters crepuscular, surely a novel way to ease students’ financial burden, while also enhancing their transferable skills, would be with the Chemistry With a Year in Jail (UCAS course code F999) programme. Think of it as less a sentence, more a sandwich course, in which the chemical aspects of forgery, drugs and heavy duty sedatives will become all too apparent. Before you can say ’banged to rights’ the students will be back in the department armed with a precise knowledge of the pharmaceutical effects of chlorpromazine, the chromatographic properties of banknote ink, and a rather unsavoury scar courtesy of some slag on D-wing. After all, if prison was good enough for Lavoisier it should be good enough for today’s budding chemists (I’d draw the line at taking the analogy too far and introducing the guillotine!).

As already noted, many places have successfully introduced new courses to boost flagging student numbers. Some, sadly, have not been so lucky. Idyllically situated on the banks of the river Wyre in central Lancashire, Garstang Polytechnic (or The Sorbonne of the North as their prospectus would grandly have it) have had to shelve their groundbreaking Chemistry with Philosophy course. All was going well until the tragic day in the second year lab when a student dowsed himself in butyric acid, declared ’I stink therefore I am’ and vanished in a blizzard of epiphenomenalistic qualia (and not a little smoke). Mind you, the metaphysical aspects of his sudden disappearance were played down when it was discovered that he’d legged it with five hundred quid’s worth of platinum electrodes and a winchester of absolute ethanol. Worse still, Chorley University’s innovative Chemistry with Psychic Science course faltered after its first year when half the students became proficient enough to predict their final grades, and decided staying on wasn’t worth the effort. And I’m sorry to report that after many years swimming against the tide, South Humberside Institute of Technology’s thought provoking course Chemistry with Origami has finally folded.

Anyhow, such failures should not detract from my plans; only question is, does the Sigma catalogue list eye of newt or wool of bat?