Saturday, 27 November 2010

Ringing In The Future Of Alchemy

Cambridge and London. That's where I was while not posting last week. And what a wonderful trip it was! Two of my very favourite people took me change ringing in Cambridge: a joyful combination of all my favourite things! Gentle exercise and extending the spine (move over, Pilates); observing mechanical technicalities of bells ringing in the lofty heights of the belfry; an imminent understanding why that poor character in Dorothy L. Sayers' Nine Tailors did not survive those nights in the bell tower; amazement at the mathematical musicality of the changes; general intrigued-ness that has prompted me to find change ringers in Glasgow (first session next week - stay tuned!); chocolate; and pubs. Huzzah!
Readily available for instant Christmas cheer

The occasion that had taken me to London was a celebration, retrospective and pointing future-wards, of the history of alchemy and chemistry: SHAC (the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry) celebrated its 75th anniversary, complete with a lecture by the always informative-and-entertaining phenomenon, or rather personality, that is Prof. Simon Schaffer. (Seriously, if you want to know why I was jealous of the undergraduates who could attend this lectures while I was sweating blood over my thesis, check out his BBC series The Light Fantastic).

Other celebrities in history of alchemy/chemistry circles left me with a lasting ponder and slightly wistful feeling. In a panel entitled "The good old days", three living legends talked about their careers as historians of chemistry, and the twists and turns fate had subjected them to to make them the researchers, teachers and people they are. Professor Maurice Crosland, who has written the hitherto only comprehensive study of alchemical language, managed to write his excellent PhD part-time while teaching at UCL, then joined the University of Leeds as faculty member to teach many students in the history of science and allow them to discover their interest in a field they had never heard of before.

This enthusiasm that seems to come naturally with the history of chemistry (and, oh, it does hit hard, I can tell from experience!) was recalled by David Knight, emeritus professor at Durham: when he first started historical investigations, after reading chemistry at Oxford, he once got so excited about a book he picked up in the library that he (and I quote from memory) "had to take a walk around the park to calm down and continue my studies." Finally, Professor Colin Russell told about his early days at Open University, and the exciting experiments he was allowed to perform on camera, at a time when TV was a new medium for teaching. Many of the experiments would be prohibited by health and safety these days - but I could tell how much fun they were (for him as a chemist and a teacher) by the way they still light up his face, decades later.

Simon Schaffer, photo for The Light Fantastic/BBC

What all three historians emphasised was simple but effective: they could not have proceeded in their career without the support of and collaboration with their colleagues; that they had a lot of luck that opportunities arose at the right time; and that they are very thankful to both fate and colleagues, that magical mixture that makes for a good career.

These days, none of us has a crystal ball; but here's to the future of the history of alchemy and chemistry. May it receive the luck and support it deserves. I know that I am not the only one who would be incredibly thankful for that.

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