Monday 14 December 2015

The Toxic Chemist and The Barking Dog

I was a scientist you know, once upon a time, a time so ancient it now feels like I had to dodge dinosaurs when making my way up to campus.

I had wanted to become and astronomer, so did all the usual things like visit Patrick Moore at his house and do all science A-Levels. But then I realised that I was never going to be good enough at maths and wasn't very much better at physics.

I did however enjoy chemistry, especially the theory side of things. I loved drawing molecules, and indeed inventing molecules; designing elegant organic reactions with the little fish-hook arrows to represent electrophilic attack, and marking great broad swathes of pencil to indicate covalent bonding.

The practicals I found a little more difficult. I was as clumsy as hell which meant it took me a while to construct my apparatus, and then when I had finally got my glassware and chemicals in order, I was so obsessive compulsive about the accuracy of my results that often I would end up not getting any.

But at school level these were only minor hiccups; my teachers were really encouraging and chemistry not being a popular subject, I got offers from all my chosen universities, including St Catharine's College at Cambridge.

Too bad I missed my required 3As by a mile.

Still I had a place elsewhere, and was really looking forward to going away. But not to study. By now, I had misgivings about science. I worried it wouldn't satisfy me intellectually. And I thought it would be too hard.

I was right. The theory I still enjoyed, no problems there. I even found myself able to solve second order differential equations, the bane of my maths career. But the lab god. Two three hour sessions a week, having to build huge Frankensteinian arrangements of tubes and bottles, and then fill them with some rather nasty chemicals without knocking the whole thing over.

By the time I'd built the apparatus, the class was over, and I'd have to stay late to get even the tiniest bit of actual you know chemistry done, while the supervising PhD students glared at me while their pints sat in the pumps in the bar.

I'd break things. I'd spill things. Once I sloshed a largish amount of ether all over my workbench, and spent the next half hour getting more and more insensible as the fashionable party anaesthetic of Victorian partygoers collected at face level. If my bunsen burner had been on I'd have gone up like the Hindenburg.

In the second year, it would have been 12 hours of lab a week. In the third, 18. I would have ended up more contaminated than Chernobyl. The delights of working with benzene and cyanide awaited.

It was time to get out. A classicist I became. But I've never lost my love of science. It's amazing when it works, and to demonstrate this, enjoy Sir Martin Poliakoff making a chemical barking dog!


All text copyright CreamCrackeredNature 14.12.15


  1. Ah, a Classicist! Join the club ...

    Thank you for your comment on my tree post.

  2. No problem Caroline, we have to stick together!

  3. That family of youtube broadcasts - Periodic Videos, 60 Symbols, and Numberphile, are all excellent