12 Jan 2018
Each year, the Chemical & Physical Society (CPS) at UCL and SCI’s London group combine to host a series of talks for curious minds to discuss the latest developments in chemical science.
The 141st CPS year started with a bang when Stefan Gates challenged the Great and the Good of UCL to explain his bizarre, extraordinary, and explosive food demos. His talk Gastronaut vs UCL: The Explosive Food Smackdown! was a huge hit, with the audience packed in like sardines. However, the evening’s menu was a far cry from tinned fishy morsels. There were glowing drinks, edible insects, and some audience members ended up with their lips covered in gold. Stefan performs spectacular food and science demos on TV, on YouTube, and at the biggest science fairs in the country – he even managed to get this year’s President blowing down a tube filled with powdered custard, resulting in a fiery explosion!
Following this great start, Tristram Wyatt’s talk Success of the smelliest? Do humans have pheromones? was a fascinating account of pheromones, dispelling the myth that humans give any off at all! He went on to detail pheromones and their effects in the animal kingdom, from suckling rabbits to ovulating goats.
From bad science to alchemy, our next speaker was John Hudson, whose talk Alchemy or How to Make Gold was a light-hearted look at the long history of alchemy. Travelling the globe for inspiration, he told the story of alchemy and reminded us modern day chemists that we owe a debt to the humble alchemist of the past.
Angela Drukman’s talk on sustainability was one highlight of the term. She introduced thought-provoking ideas regarding society’s balancing of time, work and happiness in her talk Moving towards sustainability: less stuff, more fun? It wasn’t your average talk on cutting greenhouse gas emissions! She also addressed the rising issues of mental health problems and depression; one solution being to volunteer in community projects.
Following the well-attended careers evening was David Witty and his talk Magic, Folk Medicine and Modern Drug Discovery. In this lecture, David gave his perspective on pain killers and some insight into the winding history of drug development, with a particular focus on bringing new classes of drugs to the masses.
Following this, we were treated to the magical Gordon Woods, who came in full costume as Dmitri Mendeleev and gave the talk Meet Mendeleev, the man and his matrix. Wearing a stick-on beard, Gordon proved quite the super-fan by giving a mesmerising account of the life of the Periodic Table’s inventor – he even had merchandise to sell in the Nyholm room afterwards!
Taking us back to reality, Jennifer Bizley used her group’s cutting edge-research to answer the question Is hearing believing? She detailed the brain’s ability to process hundreds of sensory inputs at once and had several demonstrations designed to put our ears to the test.
In the Spring term, Jon Copley got the ball rolling with his talk Deeper than the Titanic, hotter than molten lead: Exploring hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. Jon has been on many deep-sea expeditions and told the audience of the wondrous hydrothermal vents and the microbes that live around them. He even treated us to some as yet unseen footage set to appear in the upcoming BBC series: Blue Planet 2.
Next up was Elastomeric Products - Applications & Markets. Dr Alex Celik gave an overview into the key markets of, and applications for, his company’s materials and introduced recent disruptive innovations into the elastomerics field. He even told us about the maligned speed bumps and their move from tarmac to elastomers!
The following week saw quite the shake-up, from the elastomeric flooring at the Olympic park in Stratford, UK, to medical centres in Kenya. Pushing for change, our next speaker was Stephen Bowman, who spoke about Human Beings and Life on Earth. Stephen gave a passionate account of his time working with charities in Africa in order to combat the huge problem that is global population growth. Unafraid to address the difficult issues, he spoke of the certainties of future famines, plagues and wars due to the overpopulation of the earth, and the link with carbon emissions. His top tips: have fewer children, have them later, and reduce your carbon emissions.
The following week was a joy, with the CPS annual away day this year held at the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL. An informative introduction was given by the curator, Jack Ashby, followed by time to walk around with a glass of wine staring at the bizarre animals preserved in jars!
Back to UCL for the home stretch, Prof. Alan Dronsfield told us all about South American coca leaves – from cocaine used in dentistry to its use in wine that Queen Victoria herself used to drink. He went on to discuss its prohibition in the early 20th century in the USA and the stigma that became attached to this substance in his talk Chemical, Medical and Social History of Cocaine.
From coca leaves to vineyards, UCL Chemistry’s very own Dr Stephen Potts gave a spellbinding and interactive wine tasting lecture Wine Tasting as a Scientific Experiment? Wine is a Solution! Informative as much as it was intoxicating, this wonderful evening gave the perfect chemical introduction, both theoretically and physically, to honing your nose and palate. It was everything an undergraduate could have wished for.
Keeping on the topic of intoxication, the next talk Mind-altering drugs in history and culture was given by Mike Jay. Using rarely-seen images drawn from the High Society exhibition he curated at the Wellcome Collection and his accompanying book, Mike explored the spectrum of mind-altering substances across the globe and throughout history.
Rather more sobering was Simon Werrett’s talk Household Oeconomy and Chemical Inquiry, 1760–1840, which told you everything about oeconomy you ever wanted to know and addressed the future sustainability of chemical experimentation.
The final talk of the year was the presidential lecture Illegal Street Drugs, given by Dr Caroline Knapp. The talk addressed the effects of alcohol on the brain, and then went on to compare these effects with those of various depressants and stimulants, coming to the conclusion that potentially the most dangerous drugs aren’t necessarily the ones you’d expect. Certainly, more stimulating than depressing, hopefully the undergraduates weren’t given too many Breaking Bad-esque ideas!
CPS and SCI would like to thank all our speakers again for their fascinating talks. We look forward to another excellent series of series next year!