Focus

Voices of Chemistry: Prof. Lesley Yellowlees

Every science needs a spokesperson, and chemistry has a good contender in Professor Lesley Yellowlees. Professor Yellowlees holds the Chair in Inorganic Electrochemistry at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the new head of the College of Science and Engineering, and has recently been elected President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

FD:  The UN has declared 2011 to be the International Year of Chemistry. Do you feel that this has an impact on what you do?

LY: I feel that it has an impact on anybody who does chemistry, because it’s a chance to showcase the benefits of chemistry to society at large. We’re surrounded by the wonders of modern chemistry, it makes our living much nicer. So yes, I think everybody should be excited about it.

FD: Do you think that people often don’t realise what exactly chemistry does for them?
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Voices of Chemistry: Prof. Polly Arnold

Cutting-edge research in chemistry wouldn’t get done without passionate young scientists willing to explore new avenues and lead ambitious research projects. Professor Polly Arnold is such a researcher. She holds the Chair in Synthetic Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh where her research group looks for new and exciting molecular structures.

FD: Let’s start with the basics: Could you briefly explain to us what synthetic chemistry is?

PA: Well that’s an enormous question to answer, isn’t it? Briefly, synthetic chemistry is a small part of the exploratory chemistry that we do; it’s trying to make stuff that hasn’t been made before. Our particular work is focused on making metal compounds, so metal complex chemistry, and we like to work with molecules, discrete entities that you could dissolve, rather than continuous network structures that go on forever.
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Chemistry in Genetics

In this age of rapidly evolving technology, DNA sequences can be analysed by computers, and machines can separate hundreds of proteins at once. This makes it is easy to forget that the genetic code isn’t simply a series of letters, and that proteins aren’t just what we get out of eating poultry. They are physical and chemical structures that build and care for our bodies.

The building blocks of DNA are known as nucleotides, and are comprised of three main parts: a phosphate group, a sugar, and a highly-charged unique nitrogenous base. Of the four bases, adenine (A) and guanine (G) are both purines, which consist of an aromatic ring attached to an imidazole group. The other two bases, cytosine (C) and thymine (T) are pyrimidines, made up of a single aromatic ring. It is widely known that in DNA, A pairs with T and G pairs with C, but why is this? Read more »

Stars: The origin of all chemistry

It’s a chicken and egg situation: without stars there would be no chemistry, and without chemistry there would be no stars. A few minutes after the big bang all matter in the universe was made from the simplest element, hydrogen. So how did all the exotic elements and complex molecules we know as chemistry come about? As time went on, some of the hydrogen atoms clumped together and eventually grew into the first stars. These stars then became the element ‘factories’ that fed the growing universe.  Read more »

Focus Issue 10: Better Living Through Chemistry

During the 18th and 19th century, chemistry was the darling of the Enlightenment and the scientific community. Faraday’s lectures drew hundreds of attendees, and the inhalation of the latest discovery, laughing gas (nitrous oxide), was considered stylish after dinner entertainment. Out of such developments came the modern world, fully electrified, with a ready supply of general anaesthetic and fizzy water.  

But what of chemistry today? Without the awe-inspiring, unimaginably big and small scales of physics or the “what will kill me?” relevance of biology, public interest in chemistry seems diminished. That which was innovative in the 19th century has so successfully segued into our existence, it has become mundane.

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, a celebration of all things chemical, which hopes to go some way to recapture interest and remind people about the beauty, vibrancy and charisma of this most creative science.
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Murder Under the Microscope: Sir Sydney Smith

For many, forensics makes us think of handsome detectives who investigate gruesome murders, using cutting-edge science to arrest the culprit. Whilst born a little early to be a TV star himself, Edinburgh nurtured a pioneer of the ‘scientist-detectives’; Sir Sidney Smith.

He arrived from New Zealand as a student, remained as a professor and went on to become Dean of Medicine, with a break in between to organise the medico-legal system of Cairo. His autobiography, Mostly Murder, vividly describes some of his most acclaimed cases and thoughts about putting murder under the microscope. Read more »

The Dead Still Do Tell Tales

The University of Edinburgh is world-renowned for its medical programme and has a long and distinguished history of innovation. What people may not be aware of however are the two unique pathology collections that have played a role in both medical teaching and research. The first is held at the University itself, while the other is in the care of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

The University’s anatomy collection, now known as the Anatomy Resource Centre, was founded by the Munro family. The Munro ‘dynasty’ consisted of three generations who collectively held the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh for 126 years. The collection truly flourished under Sir William Turner, Professor of Anatomy from 1867 to 1903, who as particularly interested in comparative anatomy, anthropology and craniology. Read more »

Science in Edinburgh: Giants from the Past

Edinburgh is nowadays an internationally acclaimed centre for research and its leading university, the University of Edinburgh, is consistently ranked amongst the world’s top universities. Every year hundreds of students from the UK and abroad flock to the University, lured by its excellence in teaching and research. From what does this prestige originate? Who paved the way for it? Read more »

Joseph Black: “so pale, so gentle, so elegant and so illustrious”

A Joseph Black Building can be found on the campus of both the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow. Each is home to one of the oldest chemistry departments in Britain and can trace some of their earliest successes to their scientific namesake.

Joseph Black (1728–1799) was born in Bordeaux, France, to an Irish wine merchant father and Scottish mother. He was schooled in Belfast and at 18 trained in medicine in Glasgow, finishing his education in Edinburgh. During his academic career he took positions at both universities. Read more »

Conrad Hal Waddington: discovering the strategy of the genes

A palaeontologist, embryologist, geneticist and philosopher, Conrad Hal Waddington was a true modern day Renaissance man. Considered by many as the forefather of systems biology, he spent the most fruitful years of his career in Edinburgh.

Born in Evesham on 8th of November 1905, his parents were of long-established Quaker families. With the help of his grandmother, the young Conrad assembled a myriad of collections of natural history, geological and archaeological objects. He displayed these in ‘Con’s museum’, located in a barn attached to his house. Under the supervision of ‘Grandpa Doeg’, a local druggist and distant relation of the family, Conrad conducted chemical experiments and was introduced to science. Waddington later described ‘Grandpa Doeg’ as "almost the last surviving real 100% scientist" who "reckoned to deal with the whole of science". Read more »

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