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Chemistry’s love of volatility

By Ann Fenech, on 12 June 2010

Andrea Sella
Interspersing his speech with words including “spectacularly brilliant”, “stunningly beautiful”, “just mesmerising”, Andrea Sella, from UCL Chemistry has just reminded me exactly why I love chemistry. He is clearly enthusiastic about his subject, and that enthusiasm was definitely infectious.

Today I attended a full-house event for Andrea Sella’s event Chemistry: A volatile history with Jim Al-Khalili. The event was based on the recent television series of the same name.

As Sella stated, chemistry always seems to be thought about in connection with pollution, cancer and other negative terms. However, there is so much more to it.

The ancient Greeks believed that the world was made up of 4 elements: water, earth, air and fire. However, as chemists (or alchemists) tried to discover more, they started identifying individual elements, culminating in the development of the periodic table. Quoting Sella, “It’s true that chemistry is about the elements. But it is also about much more than that”.

During the event we saw slow-motion videos from the series, but even more impressively Andrea Sella had numerous demos prepared for us – from burning potassium, to burning diamonds…yes there was a lot of burning!

A truly inspiring event, both for how much information it provided, but even more so for the way it brought that information to your attention in a subtle but exciting manner.

As a chemist I cannot resist ending with this quote, again from Sella:

If it stinks and burns: it’s chemistry;

If it doesn’t work: it’s physics.

Final thoughts on today

By Christianne Guillotte, on 11 June 2010

Today was another action-packed and intriguing day. After attending the lecture on Carbon Trading, I went on to learn about chaos theory, dark matter, and molecular gastronomy.  Talk about an array of subjects! My mind is once again filled to the brim.

Chaos theory and dark matter are areas that I’ve researched quite a bit in my own time, and it was fascinating to hear expert opinions on the matters. Jim Al-Khalili is absolutely brilliant; his ability to make science understandable to the general public is unrivaled. No wonder he made a BBC special on chaos theory! I haven’t yet seen it, but I can’t wait to watch it.

George Efstathiou, a cosmologist, and Neil Spooner, a particle physicist, brought two perspectives to dark matter – the very big and the very small. Amazingly, they are both seeking to explain the same fundamental question with two opposite scales! I think this calls attention to the fact that science is not inflexibly rigid, nor does it reject creativity. It utilizes different ways of thinking, and it thrives on innovation.

Heston Blumenthal and Harold McGee, both experts in the science of food, furthered this point in discussing their approaches to food and its preparation. To many of us, cooking is a hassle, but to those these two men, it is a world of exploration. Simply asking “why?” and “how?” can bring a whole new light to science, and although my research area is not within food, I left with a renewed sense of imagination.

I think we can all benefit from staying curious and continually questioning our surroundings. It is from these simple questions that complex ideas emerge. I hope you, too, keep a sense of wonder and remain interested in the world around you, no matter what your interest is.