My (almost) Chemistry Career

Thiis was prepared for an essay competition on Chemistry, However it did not meet the competition rules. The ‘Listener’ column it refers to is ‘My Chemical Romance’ at

Keywords: Miscellaneous;

The Listener economics column which follows this introduction was published in a January when I write columns which, while covering an economic topic, are more general than usual. This one was also mindful that at this time some students returning to school are thinking about their subject choice, and it would not be wasted to make a strong plea for studying a traditional discipline such as chemistry.

It is also evident that the column was a tribute to my chemistry teacher in my senior-school years, Alan Wooff, the one genuinely charismatic schoolteacher I had. He taught me well. I did far better in chemistry in the national examinations than anyone expected, and later I helped my future wife, Jenny, with some chemistry fundamentals in a second year university biochemistry course, based on what he had taught me five years earlier.

In between exam and university I told him was not pursuing a career in chemistry. He was palpably disappointed, a response that I never forgotten and which still evokes a twinge of guilt. Perhaps the column is a confession.

I tried to contact Alan before I published the column but, alas, he had passed on. When published it was appreciated by his family and friends who contacted me. I learned that he was one of a group of Christchurch chemists – from school, university, and industry – who were trying to raise the profile of chemistry among students. (The book the column profiles is a later development of that program.)

Unbeknownst to me I had experienced another element of it when the University of Canterbury scientists – or was it the local Royal Society – had run a series of lectures to inspire students to pursue scientist. I dont recall the first; the second was by Robin Allen, professor of geology. I dont remember much about the lecture – except the giant pictures displayed on the screen above him. But at its end he said that this wasnt what geology was about; there would be a bus outside the university the next Sunday morning and we would go on a field trip; I almost became a geologist.

The third was by Jack (Taffy) Vaughan, professor of chemistry and one of the group promoting chemistry, who talked about the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele who almost discovered oxygen (replacing the current theory of phlogiston – negative oxygen, say), but had the bad luck to burn it with hydrogen above water thereby missing the critical outcome. A vivid lecture much of which remains with me to this day, its highlight was Taffy – a keen rugby follower – describing Scheele’s interpretative failure with his inimitable accent Welsh ‘oh, it was like your favourite five-eight dropping the ball over the line.’

Altogether a good try. I almost joined the team. But as the column tells, they left out the one thing that could have captured me. Here was a wonderful discipline with a deep analytic structure. But it was taught around its past achievements – I still remember the bit about the Haber process. What I did not know – what they did not convey – was that chemistry had a central role in the future development of New Zealand. That is what the column is about.