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Chemistry lecture hits the right note

Fred Parrett

On Sunday 11 October 2009, sponsored by SCI’s London Regional Group, the University of Greenwich Big Band explored its swinging timeline of chemical and musical genius in ‘Mixing up chemistry, jazz and big band music’…

It’s fair to say that a good number of scientists have found the swing of four-four time as compelling as their scientific formulae. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the inventions that chemical knowledge has given us and the world would be a poorer place without the much-loved songs of each era.

The links between chemistry and music were the theme of a unique multi-media event staged at the old Royal Naval College campus of The University of Greenwich. ‘Mixing up chemistry, jazz and big band music’ took the form of a slide show with video clips and live music performed by the 15-piece University of Greenwich Big Band.

Sponsored by the SCI, the RSC, and the Alumni Association of the University, the lecture gave a toe-tapping, trombone-swinging, hand-clapping lesson that hit all the right notes. Having discarded their lab coats, the audience of 150 chemists and their guests enjoyed a bit of ‘antimony, arsenic, aluminium, selenium’ as they heard the rendition of American entertainer Tom Lehrer’s famous ditty The Elements, a playful hop, skip and a jump through the periodical table.

But the mix of jazz and chemical genius in this musical timeline offered up still many more musical treats as band manager Dr Fred Parrett (himself a chemist by profession) pointed out how many chemists – some of them local to the Greenwich area – had made a mark in music.

The founder of the SCI’s London Regional Group – Sir Frederick Abel (1827-1902) – was not only an inventor but a talented musician. He was well known for sitting down at the grand piano at early Chemical Society dinners and thrilling the assembled company with his renditions of Der Freischütz or Tannhauser. Appointed as a lecturer in chemistry at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, south London, and an ordnance chemist at the Royal Arsenal Laboratories, it was he who usefully discovered how guncotton could be rendered stable and safe. Later, he introduced cordite as a new type of explosive.

As a celebration of Abel’s achievements, the band started the concert off with a swinging rendition of Joshua – Fit de Battle of Jericho, a song which expresses the trials of the American slave population in the cotton plantations of the southern United States. It was this African American music that characterised the early beginnings of jazz…about the time when Abel was experimenting with his guncotton.

Around that time John Newlands, a chemist in South East London, proposed in 1863 the periodicity of the early known elements and linked them to octaves of music, placing Hydrogen as the note C, Lithium as the note D, etc, and one octave higher the elements Fluorine and Sodium. Of course the system did not work for transition metals, but Newlands Octaves are not often recognised as being the first significant proposal of a Periodic Law.

One of the most successful dance band leaders of the 1920s, Fletcher Henderson, was a chemist. As an African-American graduating from Atlanta University in 1920 in a segregated world, he soon realised he would never find employment in his chosen profession and instead played piano in New York bars. It was chemistry’s loss and music’s big gain. To illustrate music from this era, the band played South Rampart Street Parade (1938), Charmaine (1927) and King Porter Stomp (1924). The latter song was a signature tune of the 1930s Benny Goodman Band, which Fletcher Henderson joined as a pianist and arranger, and indisputably helped make famous. Also noteworthy among the scientifically minded, was Russian-born composer Alexander Borodin, who studied chemistry at the University in St Petersburg and won an award for his research, but played several instruments and composed operatic, orchestral and chamber music including the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. His music was adapted in the 1950s for the Broadway show Kismet and, in a tribute to Borodin, the band blew its way through a favourite song from the production Baubles, Bangles and Beads.

Without a doubt, ‘Mixing up chemistry, jazz and big band music’ was one of the most unusual chemistry lectures ever given.

Juliet Pospielovsky

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