Monday, 24 October 2011

Blind Chemist out and about with the Royal Society of Chemistry

Blind Chemist out and about with the Royal Society of Chemistry
I have been a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry since the 1980s, though since I lost my sight 10 years ago had made little contact until a few months ago.  I was shocked to be told by the librarian at Burlington House that I was only the second blind person she had met at the society in 18 years.  I have since been to the RSC for some of their public debates, lectures and presentations. 

Working a room at a conference or symposium is no easy matter.  For a start, I can’t read a name badge and even though I “stick” out like a sore thumb, unless I am known to other attendees tend to be diffident or even want to take you to a chair thus stopping you ‘working the room’.  There is also usually the 50% chance of getting the name tag the wrong way round. 

It was pleasant to be greeted with my name badge on the occasion of the lecture given by Sir John Cadogan who had won the Lord (Jack) Lewis prize.  I remember JIGC when I was at Edinburgh and he was Forbes Professor of Organic Chemistry.  In the 1970s lectures were given without the aid of projectors and Power Point and one admired the way JIGC could fill in several blackboards with perfect “Benzene Rings”.  To the uninitiated these are perfect hexagons.  I could never draw organic chemistry molecules very well which is the reason I went on to do my PhD in inorganic chemistry. 

Sir John’s talk was partly reflective and partly anecdotal.  Chatham House rules probably do not apply but the criticism of sound bite science policy is certainly one that ought to be heeded.  I particularly enjoyed the barb about Genome Valley during the Blair years.  Sir John has many views on the pseudo-sciences and I regret that so much of public discourse on science is now dominated by History of Science, economics sciences and some of the very soft sciences. 

Sir John referred to Peripheral Vision several times in his lecture and though critical of interdisciplinary approaches to research, maintains that there ought to be a multidisciplinary approach.  To paraphrase Lord (George) Porter “Pure Science is Science which has yet to have an application.”

On the whole, a very interesting evening and a chance to meet some old friends from my Edinburgh days. 

Sir John left academia and joined British Petroleum when the company still undertook research.  The question of directing pure scientific research is something that many in government never understood.  In terms of putting a price or cost on anything, the Blair years have been criticized for measuring anything without having a sense of what they were measuring.  I noted that Matthew Taylor, in an interview on radio, took great exception at this level of criticism.  During the discussions the questions of both serendipity and luck were mentioned.  How do you measure these? Discuss!

On a lighter note, though with serious implications, was the RSC talk on “What’s in my Stuff”  This was given by Dr Hywel Jones at the Chemistry Centre at the Royal Society of Chemistry in Burlington House.  The research had been motivated by asking people in the street if they knew what went into a mobile ‘phone.  The non- scientists had an excuse for not knowing though the audience had some problem in answering the question “How many chemical elements are in a mobile phone?”  In what became a cross between Bingo and an auction the answer is 40.  I had guessed 27, so was getting there, though someone had read an article about Rare Earths in Time some months ago.  Being a Main Group Inorganic Chemist I had not worked with any of the Rare Earths but had isolated a novel compound with Germanium in it.  I can be heard muttering Tantalum and Yttrium as people tried to guess what “stuff” went into a phone. 

On average, there are 1.3 mobile ‘phones per head in the UK.  I have 3 Nokia button mobile phones which have been dropped and have had coffee sprayed at them, but still talk to me.  A case of reuse and recycle the phone rather than isolate the elements therein. 

For the benefit of those using a screen reader, I am going to be talking about jeans, the trouser variety and not the DNA stuff.  I heard on the radio that there were more pairs of jeans in the world than people.  Another case of “What’s in my stuff?”  There has been a proposal to use titanium dioxide impregnated on jeans (trouser variety) in a move to reduce pollution in ambient air when moving about.  There is an ‘echo’ of Sir John’s lecture when he commented that not enough pure chemistry research was done in heterogeneous catalysis.  Good old titanium dioxide is used as white pigment in paint and toothpaste and its use as a household chemical is well known.  I mentioned this at the RSC and they confirmed that interest was shown in the fashion industry and that a photo shoot had been done in London.  One idea is that a laundry product could “impregnate” the Jeans (trouser variety).  At this point it might be worthwhile checking up on the etymology of “Denim Jeans”

(you might hear me say 27 at around 28:05-10 mins! Also Yttrium & Tantalum later.)