Sunday, 24 June 2012

Blind Chemist: diffractions and distractions at Wellcome "Elements" event

The Wellcome Collection had a late night event on 22nd June in their elements series.  ( ).  Visitors were free to roam the many floors, from the lower ground levels up to the library.

The evening started at 7pm and the theme was Elements and Gold, Silver and Bronze.  This gave a handle for looking at the chemistry, myth, coinage, alchemy and metal crafts in a very relaxed atmosphere.  There were 3 events in the auditorium and I booked a seat for one of them.  Otherwise it was possible to drift around and take part in a fascinating evening with a lot of chemistry involved as well as a bit of socialising.

I had told a friend about it and he was interested in hearing some of the events.  We went to some together otherwise I could drift and go with the flow.  I find I can relate spaces to objects which I had found before and this is commented in brackets. 

Sitting in the café enjoying a coffee a familiar music theme sounded at 7 on the dot –Goldfinger.  It was “Operatic tenor” Stephen Miles, serenading us “with songs of gold and silver.”  Catherine Walker from the Wellcome Collection came up and said hello and we chatted.  Pauline from the Royal Society of Chemistry was also in the café and I was chuffed to introduce the pair of them. (Note: both of them had come up to me knowing that from more than a yard or so I could not recognize them)

A little later, my friend and I went downstairs and met the silversmith, David Clarke.  He buys scrap silver and melts and reworks it.  I asked him about the silver bullion price but he said there was a separate market for his sources.

It was soon time for the first lecture titled “Adventures in Greek and Roman metallurgy with Edith Hall”  Edith Hall is a frequent broadcaster on the classical Greek cultures and often appears on In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg Radio4 programme.  She wrote quite a lot for Open University courses, too.

This was the first lecture and Edith started with the Funeral Games mentioned in Homer’s Iliad following the death of Petrocolus and the lists of gold, cauldrons, animals, women and objects for prizes.  Though light hearted the question and answers were interesting.

A discussion on ethics soon got underway and though Edith wobbled at some poor translations such as alloy composition and what happened to Antimony, I found it interesting that while Hall will talk for free to a comprehensive school she charges a fee for private schools.  Some got into ethics of barter and trade and I suspect she may have been surprised at the level of philosophical discussion from a bunch of scientists.  We skipped through Ontology, Epistemology and talked about concepts of money.  An interesting exchange!

Next, we joined Vayu Naidu, a storyteller who was unfazed by two mobile phone interruptions.  A steward found me a seat and I settled down to listen to an Indian tale of love and betrayal superbly told in relaxed surroundings.  Marina Warner was on the schedule and I had heard her speak on myth and had bought a copy of her book (It has not all been read to me yet: a candidate for an audiobook?) 

I then went to the Wellcome Library (I have been shown this area before by Catherine Walker.) where a steward found me a seat at the front for a fabulous set of music. The saxophone collection of some very expensive instruments was introduced with the names of the parts of the instrument which can be exchanged. A change of mouthpiece, crook and even bell can involve a retuning of the group. There were 3 saxophone players with a variety of instruments.  One had a solid silver bell, one had a pink gold finish.

Charlie introduced her band from Howarths.  They had been called after a group I remember from first around late 1960s.  They started with Goldfinger, some Bach, some Duke Ellington-Caravan and a new piece written by Charlie for a tin whistle (Copper and Tin make bronze).  The saxophones had to be retuned a quartertone.

I chatted afterwards and Charlie let me handle the silver belled instrument. A fascinating 25 minutes and a real treat.

It was now time to wander through the various floors and activities on offer.  I have used headings from the Wellcome’s programme of events as a guide:

1.  “Learn the intricacies of making silver wire with Jamie Hall.”
      (This was located near Henry Wellcome’s life mask with large moustache)

2.  "Watch out for our gold assayer who will be ready to tell you if that precious ring is made of the real thing using X-ray flourescence.”
This was a chance for the cane to be assayed but, even folded it was too large.  Instead, I was shown the old ways of assaying precious metal.  At the mention of Vogel Inorganic Analysis, we soon went up a notch in chemistry.  I was talking with a PhD student about some non precious metals, as we would define them.  Many elements are quite scarce but are not attractive to the jeweler’s trade.  On leaving, I noticed a painting of Galileo’s illegitimate daughter (dressed as a nun)
Meet Marcos Martinón-Torres, a modern-day alchemist"
3.  "
By this point I wanted to have my cane seriously transmuted to gold and went to the stand in the DNA section where a 2p coin was converted to silver.  A lot of showmanship and a real bonus when I discussed real chemistry with Fred who was standing by and must have picked up that I had a chemical background.  We were soon chatting about fluorine NMR which is quite a big thing.  Fred said that boron NMR was making a comeback and I was able to chat about borone hydrides (B2H6 and B2D6), how BH3 adducts were interesting and I had to use heavy hydrogen (deuterium) to work out the mechanism. 

Thanks to Fred and his colleagues. My coin is silver but the cane is still base metal.

4.  Find out how batteries work.

I drifted into electrochemistry and some chat about Faraday, salt bridges and good old Delta G.

5.  Make your own silver photogram.

Many thanks to Jane Yates, who led me into the dark room and laid out my folded cane on some Photogram paper.  At this point, the cane took over and had several baths in chemicals and a silver image formed.  I held a torch above it and for 6 seconds it was exposed by light.  The paper was turned over to protect the image until treatment and fixing.  With amazement I could make out my folded cane, ball and cord almost as it were a silver sword.  (My knowledge gained from the Wallace Collection study day had stood me in good standing)

Many thanks to Jane for a stunning image!

© Prof Whitestick

There was still some time to try out more stalls, so I did!

6.  “Find out how to cast tin with the Institute of Making.”

The cane was too large for a pewter model from a cuttlefish mould but I was told about the process.

7.  "Discover the role that colloids have in making stained glass."

Colloids and nanoparticles have cropped up at some time or another and I was able to try some painting of a stained glass window .  I was helped by Andres and kitted out with rubber gloves, was able to start.  I picked colloidal silver and copper while being guided with a dropper in applying the colloids.

Afterwards I had a chat with Nathan Hollingsworth who is doing postdoctoral research at UCL. We were soon discussing electron diffraction and when I converted nanometers into Angstrom units. My synthesis of novel small molecules involved a lot of bond length and angle property analysis. In the 1970s we saved up our novel compounds and took them to UMIST (Manchester), which at the time had the only electron diffraction facility in the UK.

Thanks Nathan for a great chat about electron and neutron diffraction which I had mentioned as cropping up in the Wallace Collection.

An assortment of photographs were taken. From description and enlargement I have been able to sort them out. Apologies if I have got some names wrong.

Many thanks for a wonderful evening at the Wellcome.  All the students and researchers were polite, interesting and soon engaged with me. UCL has certainly trained them well as rounded characters.  (My own chum at UCL has just got a first, well done…)

PS: This was in my Twitter feed sent by Sylvia McLain @girlinterruptin

PPS: The following exchange concerning boron NMR ontology and part of Edith Hall's Karl Marx's quotation "Gold sein oder Gold Schein" may also be of interest!

'Boron NMR is making a comeback.' Plse explain wider societal ramifications @profwhitestick.
@ruthiegledhill It was really Edith Hall and her theory that gold coinage being the start of the change in society.
@ProfWhitestick I will respond further after seeking counsel from our science editor tmrw. Or one of my brainy biochem sisters.