Literature and Chemistry


First of all I was distressed to read in the Emmigrant.ie BookView Ireland newsletter that the works of Dan Brown dominated four of the top five best selling paperback fiction list:

Paperback Fiction:

1. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown – Corgi

2. Angels and Demons, Dan Brown – Corgi

3. Digital Fortress, Dan Brown – Corgi

4. Deception Point, Dan Brown – Corgi

5. PS, I Love You, Cecelia Ahern ­ HarperCollins

The Da Vinci Code was a good novel in a Doc Savage pulp fiction kind of way, Angels and Demons was a much poorer effort. My fellow countrymen have prided themselves for hundreds of years for being a nation of scholars, it seems no longer to be the case. If you are going to read pulp fiction, read the original stuff for free by downloading it from Blackmask.

 

From BBC’s current affairs flagship programme on November, 30. Scientists may be able to save the world – but who will save our scientists? If Exeter University proceeds with its plans to close its chemistry department, it would be the fourth university chemistry department to close in just over a year. It has caused prominent scientists to call for the government, industry and universities to do more to safeguard the departments and do more to build expertise in science.

Our science editor Susan Watts will be asking what we are doing wrong, and why we appear to be losing out to Asian countries and their booming science sectors.

Maybe my own personal experiences here will shed some light on things. The universities are only reaping the bitter harvest of seeds sown 20 – 30 years ago.

When my Dad first came to the UK, there was chemical plants and industry that ran up the bank of the west bank Mersey from Birkenhead docks to Runcorn. I grew up with the inspection lights like a cloud of fireflies, burning flares and silver pipe cathedrals as much a part of my childhood as Hanna Barbera cartoons.

By the time I got a job in the chemical industry in the late 1980s the industry was in an advanced state of decline. As Thatcher’s Britain mutated from a manufacturing economy to a services economy the ecosystem of ‘strategic’ industries was unwound through irresistable economic forces. I got out following a redundancy, cashed in my pension plans to date and went to university whilst there was still a grant of 1,000 GBP or so to study marketing.

My old chemistry teacher said that the wealth of a manufacturing country can be measured by the amount of sulphuric and hydrochloric acid it consumes, yet four years ago the UK government had to step in to stop the last chlorine plant in the UK closing down at Rock Savage in Runcorn.

I’ve back to all the sites I had worked at in the chemical industry over five years in the late 80’s and early 90’s:

  • Freeman Chemicals in Deeside Industrial Park – on the site is a new building for BASF
  • Briggs Oil Eastham Refinery – the site has gone smaller and is now owned by Nynas AB
  • Spectrum Adhesive Coaters in Croft Industrial Estate – there is a grassy knoll were 100 people once worked
  • Corning Optical Fibres in Deeside Industrial Park – the area is covered in scrub grass from the surrounding marshy land and fenced off with a chain link fence. No trace remains of the five storey high clean rooms or any of the other buildings

They were all old dirty jobs, I remember:

  • Showering for an hour in the evening to try and get the sulphurous smell out of my skin when I worked around high sulphur Venezuelan crude oil products
  • Coughing my guts up when the feathering at the edge of my mask didn’t work when handling maliec anhydride dust
  • Seeing a bottle full of nitrogen gas under pressure take off like a torpedo across a main road when it fell out of a lorry crane sling hit the floor and fractured
  • Watching a smoke stack burst into flames completely out of control sending an anvil of black smoke into the air

But without the ecosystem there it is a lot harder to develop the industries of tomorrow in biotechnology, advanced materials and pharmaceuticals. This isn’t a problem that is unique to the chemical sector, look at engineering, electronics etc.

Why do chemistry as a career? If it was too important, why does it pay so badly, graduate industrial chemists traditionally have been paid much less than other professionals such as accountants. The work can be pretty nasty. I was not well paid when I worked in the sector, but with overtime I could take home more than someone I worked alongside who had a doctorate in chemistry. Not surprising when I was asked would I like to pay for myself to study for Royal Society of Chemistry qualifications I said no (ok and the whole dance music scene was too much of a draw)! The kids know the score, they are voting with their feet and who can blame them.