December 21, 2012

Happy Christmas Lectures (Merry “Chemist-mas” everyone)

Peter Wothers

Peter Wothers lights the blue touchpaper.

If you hate Chemistry [1] it’s probably because your Chemistry teachers weren’t up to scratch. Peter WothersThe Modern Alchemist, is someone who might rekindle your interest in Chemistry through his delivery of the 2012 Christmas Lectures. Wothers will unpick the chemistry of the world around us, looking at Air, Water and Earth, three of the original Greek ‘elements’ that tantalised alchemists for centuries. He’ll also be exploding and burning things too.

The lectures will be broadcast on BBC Four at 8pm on 26, 27 and 28 December and available online afterwards via iPlayer and RiChannel.org (for those outside the UK). Here’s some more blurb from the R.I.:

Lecture 1: Air: The Elixir of Life

Take a deep breath. Inside your lungs is a mixture of highly reactive and incredibly stable gases. Oxygen is the most reactive constituent. When we eat it’s these O₂ molecules that seize electrons from our food to give our bodies the energy to live. Add a third oxygen atom and we make ozone, a gas so reactive that it’s toxic if we breathe it in, but high up in the stratosphere this gas protects us from the sun’s radiation. Add a carbon atom and we produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming the planet. We will unravel the puzzle of how and why these compounds of oxygen hold the key to the viability of life on the planet.

Nitrogen, the most common element in air, is an unreactive gas, but a key atom in every cell in every living thing on Earth.  How can we imitate nature to bring this suffocating gas alive?  Even less reactive are the Noble or inert gases. They’re so stable they are the only elements that exist naturally as individual atoms – but what is it about them that make them so inert? And how can we excite these gases enough to join the chemical party? We’ve come a long way from the days when alchemists thought air was a single element.

Lecture 2: Water: The Fountain of Youth

Water is essential to life since every reaction in our bodies takes place in it.  But what makes this fluid so special?  What happens when you add a lighted splint to a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen? Kaboom! But why? What makes this particular rearrangement of atoms to form water so explosive? Can we tap this energy release to provide environmentally friendly solution to our energy problems?   Plants have the ability to reverse this reaction by using the energy from sunlight to release oxygen from water.  We are starting to learn how to do the same.  In this lecture we unpack how energy lies at the heart of chemistry.

We’ll also look at the salts contained in water. Once again we will see the startling difference between a compound and its constituent elements. Take sodium chloride – aka table salt. Sodium is a soft silvery metal that explodes with water; chlorine a deadly poisonous, choking green gas.  Both elements are lethal to us, but after they have met, a dramatic change takes place.  The sodium and chloride ions that form are essential components in our bodies. They help generate the electrical impulses that make our brains and nerves work. We begin to see how chemistry plays a vital role in our lives.

Lecture 3: Earth: The Philosopher’s Stone

The rocks that form planet Earth have always fascinated alchemists. Deep in the bowels of the Earth they thought the metals literally grew in the rocks and that one metal over time matured into another.  They dreamed of replicating these natural processes turning ‘base metals’ into gold. Today the extraction of minerals and metals from rocks has made fortunes, but not quite in the way the alchemists imagined. We now know many rocks are the result of oxygen combining with different elements – each with individual properties. Breaking the strong bonds between oxygen and these elements has always been a challenge. Humankind learned how to release copper in the Bronze Age, and iron in the Iron Age, through smelting. Now we can extract even more exotic materials.

By understanding the properties of materials, such as the silicon present in computers, or the rare earth magnets generating our electricity in wind turbines, we are entering a new era of chemistry in which we can engineer electrons in new configurations for future technologies. We can now put together the unique cluster of protons, neutrons and electrons that form each of the 80 elements in exciting new ways. If the ancient alchemists were alive today they’d be dazzled by the wonders created by the Modern Alchemist.

The lectures this year have been promoted with a fun Christmas Advent calendar at advent.richannel.org, which included a few star turns from the likes of Jerry Hall and many others, describing their favourite elements:

Whatever your favourite element, have yourself a Happy Chemistmas. If you’ve read stuff here at O’Really? in 2012, thanks for visiting and hope to see you again in 2013.


  1. Lippincott, W. (1979). Why Students Hate Chemistry Journal of Chemical Education, 56 (1) DOI: 10.1021/ed056p1

July 1, 2011

Anything that calls itself a Science, probably isn’t…

Way Cool Science Stuff by Mark A. Hicks www.markix.netScience, is a big word that gets used and abused with reckless abandon. Virtually any discipline can award itself extra kudos by adding the magic S word at the end. For example, which sounds weightier, sports studies or sports science?

This phenomenon has been noticed many times before, for example, the philosopher John Searle once remarked that:

Science has become something of an honorific term, and all sorts of disciplines that are quite unlike physics or chemistry are eager to call themselves ‘sciences‘.

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that anything that calls itself a science probably isn’t.” –see [1,2]

So let’s make a list. Starting with things that probably aren’t a Science because they call themselves one:

We could carry on for ages with this list and eventually include:

So are maths, physics, chemistry, biology etc real sciences™ too? Using Searle’s definition, it’s difficult to say. To avoid confusion, it might be a good idea to use a subjects non-scientific original name (“biology” rather than “life science”) that way, we know (paradoxically) they are real sciences. Probably.


  1. John R. Searle (1986). Minds, Brains and Science (1984 Reith Lectures) Harvard University Press ISBN:0674576330 (see also audio from the BBC Reith lecture archive) not  Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN:052109626X (as originally stated in the first version of this post)
  2. Fuller quotation: “Science has become something of an honorific term, and all sorts of disciplines that are quite unlike physics and chemistry are eager to call themselves ‘sciences’. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that anything that calls itself ‘science’ probably isn’t — for example, Christian science, or military science, and possibly even cognitive science or social science. The word ‘science’ tends to suggest a lot of researchers in white coats waving test tubes and peering at instruments. To many minds it suggests an arcane infallibility. The rival picture I want to suggest is this: what we are all aiming at in intellectual disciplines is knowledge and understanding. There is only knowledge and understanding, whether we have it in mathematics, literary criticism, history, physics, or philosophy. Some disciplines are more systematic than others, and we might want to reserve the word ‘science’ for them.”
  3. Peter J. Denning (2005). Is computer science science? Communications of the ACM, 48 (4) DOI: 10.1145/1053291.1053309

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