Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions – Howard Colquhoun

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I suppose family background must have helped. Growing up in the 1950s, my father was an experimental engineer in the emerging electronics industry, and I was kept well supplied with popular books on science and technology. Our local university in Newcastle also put on evening science lectures for children, and I was sometimes allowed to tag along to these with my older brother and his friends. Later on, at grammar school, a group of enlightened science teachers ran a weekly chemistry club and I still remember my excitement when experiments such as the synthesis of Bakelite and Nylon actually worked!

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

Maybe a writer – though of course a chemist has to be writer in any case. I’m not sure I’d have been much good at fiction, but I enjoy exploring some of the more obscure byways of Victorian and Edwardian art history, and I might possibly have made some sort of a career as a biographer of neglected painters and composers from that period.

3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?

I wish I knew! But I suspect that, with oil and gas now genuinely running out, the viability of nuclear fission still being debated, and fusion still a long way from being a realistic proposition, the development of new materials and processes for energy production, conversion and storage is going to be one area where chemistry really will have a major impact on society over the next twenty years.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

I wish I could have known Lawrence Bragg, who is I think one of the most underestimated scientists of the last century. His record of achievement, sustained over more than fifty years, is quite staggering. Not only did he discover the fundamental law governing diffraction of X-rays from crystals, but he used this insight to help understand, for the first time, the nature of literally almost everything, from simple salts through metals to silicate minerals and finally to the structures of the most complex molecules of the living cell. (He was also, by all accounts, a brilliant lecturer and a thoroughly decent chap).

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

I was working in the lab only yesterday (though admittedly this was the first time in about five years), doing some scouting experiments on the synthesis and crystallisation of tungsten-ruthenium molecular wires. I began my research career as an inorganic chemist, working with Bernard Aylett in London, and although most of my work now focuses on polymers, I still maintain a small but active research programme in coordination chemistry.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?

The book would be Jim Watson’s “The Double Helix”. The story raises serious ethical issues regarding scientific competition versus collaboration, but it also gives a vivid account of one of the most important discoveries ever made in science. Moreover, it really captures the atmosphere of intellectual life in England in the early 1950s – a fascinating period when science was just emerging from its wartime constraints, driven by scientists such as Bernard Lovell, John Randall and Geoffrey Wilkinson, whose early careers had all been frustrated by the war. My CD would be Vaughan Williams’ “London” symphony of 1913 – another work which supremely catches the spirit of a time and a place.

Howard Colquhoun is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Reading and works on the design, synthesis, structural chemistry and applications of high performance aromatic polymers.


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