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Lunch Hour Lecture: The state, science and Humphry Davy

Thomas Hughes4 February 2016

“Science, gentlemen, is of infinitely more importance to a state than may at first sight appear possible”. While few scientists would disagree with this today, it was the 19th-century chemist Humphry Davy who made the observation. In a recent Lunch Hour Lecture Professor Frank James (UCL Science & Technology Studies) took us on a whistle stop tour of Davy’s colourful life, his science and his relationship with the state. Humphry Davy. From: Sarah K. Bolton: Famous Men of Science. (New York, 1889)

A poet of Penzance

Born in Penzance on December 17, 1778, Davy initially showed a passion for poetry. This was largely descriptive poetry, such as this extract about St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall: “Beat by the storms of ages, stands unmov’d, Amidst the wreck of things—the change of time.”

However after his schooling, his godfather apprenticed him to a surgeon and it was in the apothecary there where he discovered what would become a life-long interest in chemistry.

While living in Penzance he met distinguished natural philosophers including the engineer Davies Giddy who encouraged Davy and offered him the use of his library.

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Can we teach chemistry with explosions alone?

Oli Usher20 February 2015

Professor Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry)

Professor Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry)

Explosions, eruptions and exothermic reactions are the backbone of chemistry demonstrations. Generations of kids have been wowed by them.

But do they really learn much from it?

Professor Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry) is a major purveyor of these explosions at science festivals and shows around the country. (He is also the only person I know who, when asked to sign off a risk assessment form full of apparently irresponsible pyrotechnics, was able to truthfully reply: “I make 7 foot fire tornadoes all the time, I’m sure it’s fine.”)

Having won the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize for his explosion-based science outreach, Sella used the opportunity of his celebratory public lecture (‘Is chemistry really so difficult?’, 9 February) to make a plea for… well, not the complete elimination of explosions from public lectures, but more thoughtful and judicious use of them.

But first: one last opportunity to “blow sh*t up”, in this case, a can of hydrogen. Cue laughter and applause.

Back on track. For centuries, chemists have tried to impress people by blowing things up, he says, but this gives a false impression of what chemistry is really about. It suggests that it’s exciting, and that it’s dangerous. It wows the crowds, but from a scientific perspective it’s not actually all that interesting. Flashes and bangs are chemistry porn, and they undermine recognition of modern chemistry as one of the towering intellectual achievements of our time.

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‘Fears for the Future’ so do something NOW

Claire V J Skipper8 June 2011

Dear All,

My first Cheltenham festival day of lectures seemed full of fears for the future. Mark Maslin (head of the Department of Geography at UCL) chaired ‘The Limits of Our Planet’ and the closely related ‘Acid Acidification’, and then Andrea Sella (UCL Department of Chemistry) was the experimental star of ‘Endangered Elements.’

‘The Limits of our Planet’ highlighted that we have already passed the sustainable limit of our planet in terms of the rate of biodiversity loss, climate change and the nitrogen cycle. More than 100 species for every million become extinct at the moment, which in my mind is 100 above the ‘acceptable level’, but the experts have put the ‘acceptable level’ at 10. Climate change was measured on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which gets enough media attention for everyone to know that it needs reducing. The nitrogen cycle is less well known and the amount of nitrogen that humans take out of the atmosphere to use as fertiliser is at 121 million tonnes per year compared to the sustainable level of 35.

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Chemistry and Architecture – Chemarchitecture?

James M Heather7 June 2011

100% Genuine Cheltenham Architecture. Unknown percentage chemistry.If you’re like me, you might not instinctively give chemistry and architecture too large an overlap in your mental Venn Diagram of Everything. However, having just attended my first event at the Cheltenham Science Festival, I’m inclined to reconsider.

UCL chemists Andrea Sella (chair) and Dewi Lewis teamed up with visionary architect Magnus Larsson to discuss the interplay between these two fields.

In an almost science-fiction like presentation, Magnus illustrated how he’s using biological and chemical techniques to produce novel and useful architectural structures, or as he put it, “to design materials that don’t quite exist just yet”.

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