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Quotes from the Department of Chemistry Staff 1957-1960

During the late 1950s students in the Department of Chemistry were privileged to be taught by a group of [mostly] highly talented lecturers, in whose discourses wisdom was frequently leavened with humour. I have a rather irreverent nature and tended to record these, sometimes unintended, witticisms in my notes. My lecture notes have not survived, but the marginal notes have, here is a selection of them.

Many undergraduates regard Physical Chemistry as the least accessible part of the subject. It is therefore rather surprising that this area provided two of the wittiest lecturers, Professor Eley and Dr. Cundall; they deserve a section each:

Professor D.D. Eley

Pride of place as the best overall 'performer' goes to Dan Eley. He revelled in the role of the eccentric professor and his lectures were highly entertaining, albeit sometimes incomprehensible. He tended to arrive at high speed, often several minutes late, and would begin speaking as he rushed through the door. His discourse would be interspersed with anecdotes and asides; these would frequently take him away from his subject. Whilst speaking he would cover the blackboards with notes. He wrote extremely fast; when he had filled both boards he would erase the first and continue writing; it was a struggle to keep up with him. He would often have wandered far from his subject, but what was written on the blackboard remained bang on target and we soon realised that it was essential to make a note of everything he had written. The lectures were an entertainment; the notes contained the essentials of the subject - wave mechanics, quantum theory or whatever.

Here are some gems from his lectures:

"I haven't looked up my notes on this; so I don't know if it's right." [it was, of course]

"Actually, I was just starting my lunch when my secretary came up to me and told me that I was supposed to be lecturing to you lot." [introduction to a lecture which should have started at at 13.15]

"Your exam is on the 18th December isn't it? Well, I haven't set it yet." [on 11th December, when the examination was on 12th December, which was the last day of term anyway]

"˝ kT + ˝kT is, er, um, 1kT, isn't it?"

"When a hot body and a cold body are placed in contact, the hot body gets hotter and the cold body gets colder." [oops]

"Well, I suppose Pythagoras still holds."

"I wish I'd never started this." [having got rather tangled up in an argument]

"The womans a b*st*rd!" [of a laboratory assistant after she broke one of his favourite pieces of apparatus]

"I usually glide over this; I don't know why I am letting myself in for it this year."

"I don't know where this is going to get me." [neither did we!]

"I can solve this .. Can I? .. I suppose I can." [wrestling with an equation, he did solve it of course]

"If you want to give your tutor a bad weekend, ask him about undetermined multipliers." Voice from the back, "You are my tutor." Prof. Eley, "Oh, am I?"

"I'm not going into this because .. [pause] .. for one thing I can't remember all the story."[a sidetrack having run out of steam]

"Let's go back and see where we parted company." [on noticing an unusual level of lack of comprehension amongst the class]

"Once you know this, you are definitely one up"

"I won't try to demonstrate that this is a pure number as I would be bound to make a mistake"

"I couldn't do this without tying myself in knots." [and the rest of us!]

"Hallo, hallo, hallo; where's that come from?" [an odd term has crept into an equation]

"If I were a little Maxwell's Demon, I could walk around the lattice and distinguish each atom or molecule."

"When father says 'Turn' we all turn, it's like the little children in the big bed."

"Just in case this lecture isn't clear, which is quite likely."

"It adds two onto this side and swells up something 'orrible."

"Anything you want explained, before I get properly in the soup?"

"The easiest way to teach this would be to leave out the nuclear weight from the start; it's a damned nuisance anyway."

"They may have shifted absolute zero, or something silly."

"I'll write up a lot on the board and while you are busy copying it I'll dash upstairs and get it." [having forgotten to bring a book to the lecture]

"It's quite simple really, actually I always make it seem so complicated."

"Can you see it? I only just can myself." [explaining a particularly abstruse point]

"This is beyond the frontiers of knowledge actually." [and certainly beyond ours!]

"You can choose any ruddy function you like if it has twenty-six parameters." [pointing out flaws in some pseudo-statistical calculations]

"Intuition is lying in bed until the answer comes." [about Schrodinger]

"I won't give credits here as I'm in a hell of a hurry." Then, five minutes later "This was worked out in 1950; by me as a matter of fact."

"What's funny about that?" [having said 'secondly' and written 'thirdly' on the board]

"Can you read this writing?" [dashing something off even faster than usual]

"Let's imagine I'm a hydrogen molecule."

"When I got there I found I hadn't got them, but I found some others, so I brought those." [some handout scripts - for a completely different lecture, of course]

"Actually, I could have got here on time; but I didn't." [late again]

"In previous years I've tied myself in dreadful knots with this."

"I've written some damn silly nonsense on my notes here." [getting stuck halfway through an argument]

Voice from the back, "You've got the first line wrong". Prof. Eley, "Go on, have I? [pause] This is the right way to lecture you know; it keeps the class on its feet."

"Once you forget the conventions, you can get right up the creek you know."

"In the second year I always teach the fool thing with the overlap integral for some reason."

"Er, what's the formula for formic acid?" [displaying his usual lofty ignorance of organic chemistry]

"Last night I did some calculations which showed that benzene should be surprisingly stable. Do any of you organic chemists know if this is the case?" [he was having us on of course - or was he?]

"I seem to have got my notes in a bit of a muddle here." [Oh no, not again!]

"What the hell am I talking about?" [no point asking us!]

"I will now mention the, er, um, .. if I can find my notes."

"Transition metals are catalysts, although they are all covered in muck, etc., etc."

"Stone me, so it is - it's a bit early in the morning!" [at a 9.15 lecture]

"Since I spent about ten years working in this field it's a bit bad isn't it?" [he had got in a muddle again - or had he?]

"One of my research students, a lady called Miss S***, now married and living on the Amazon somewhere, did this. She dried the whole shooting match with sodium. I expect she would be very pleased if she knew I was telling you this."

"I didn't intend to talk about that."

"I should have read my own paper before I came in."

"It's like Stanley meeting Livingstone, they shake hands and that's the end of it."

"The ordinary rate laws go to pot at the end."

"And, lo and behold, you get a straight line - if you are lucky."

"Everything comes down 'boink' and it goes solid."

"The polymer is growing nicely when a monomer comes along with its little chopper and chops it off."

"If you ever read my first paper, which I hope you won't."

"This script, written in words of one syllable, which I spent until 2am on Sunday morning working out. I'll send it up to Cambridge to have it checked but if it's wrong by that time you'll have had it anyway."

"I don't know why I'm talking about this anyway."

"This is the respiratory pigment of the conch; whatever that is. The molecular weight is about 9,900,00. Must be a pretty slow creature. What is a conch anyway?"

"I'm going to work the whole thing out; if I can remember it."

"This chap can't see what's coming until it's hit it; by then it's lost its valency electron - poor thing."

"I'll try to do this calculation on the board; I'll bet I get it wrong."

"It's the world's worst scientific library I should think."

"That's all wrong, absolutely and completely wrong." [referring to some equations he had just written on the board]

"Now we will start the lecture if our capitalist friend will stop counting his coins." [someone had just dropped some money and was searching for it under his seat]

"That becomes X and upsy downsy here it becomes 1/X."

"What's the symbol? Yes, I know - or do I?"

"Beautiful crystals. It looks the sort of substance that ought to do something."

"This is one of the few organic molecules that I can draw on the board - I hope."

"You know, this always seems to cause amusement."

"This is the wrong energy gap anyway."

"Among the little N atoms in the middle. What do you call them?"

"This is more chemistry and I may very well come unstuck."

"This theory is now a 'dead duck'."

"Then RTloge of what not = 0"

"This was done by Adgair; who was also the first man to climb King's College Chapel."

"I could tell you how to climb King's College Chapel, but I won't."

"This is our last lecture isn't it? Hooray!"

Robert Cundall

In our 2nd year Bob Cundall taught us thermodynamics, his lectures were delivered in a deadpan flat northern accent and might have been very boring, but they were not! He had a wonderful turn of phrase and we needed to stay alert, lest we miss some gem. Here are a few of them, in some cases I recorded the dates, indicative of how many bon mots could occur in a single lecture:

20 February 1959

"Let us go on an excursion into the land of make-believe; the world of atoms and molecules."

27 February 1959

"The liquid then starts to freeze to produce water" [of ice at -5oC]

"The ultimate fate of all matter is to be decimated. Eventually 'heat death' will occur, a type of 'equalitarian society' thus being formed."

"One would be likely to bet a modest sum; it is all rather like a glorified horse race"

"Stones tend to go down hills."

"Once it starts, it tends to spread like 'flu throughout the whole system."

6 March 1959 [ an exceptional performance]

"A squashy thing like a molecule."

"A molecule cannot be measured with a micrometer like a ball bearing."

"Now we are unperturbed; we'll soon fix that. We will just add a few degrees of freedom." [of a Maxwell-Boltzmann Relation (simple form) which didn't fit]

"The two molecules 'beat their own brains out', so to speak, by the force of the reaction."

"It's all very well considering that the two things hit each other and bounce apart like billiard balls."

"If there is anything you don't understand or that doesn't fit your equation in chemistry, just add a probability (steric) factor." [of reaction kinetics]

"This mammoth molecule, consisting of an 'inflated' 'A' molecule moves sedately into the deflated 'B' molecule to give a collision."

"Quite a short pamphlet, about 2000 pages." [of N.B.S. 500]

"This is what you might call μi lozenge (μi). I don't actually use it, but some people do."

"You have to put the brake on, everything is under control so to speak, when you've got a constant."

"I'm afraid it makes our burden through life somewhat harder."

"That is another thing that is sent to try us."

"There's nothing like being thoughtful for others." [of some particularly involved molality and molarity conversions]

"Invade the world of molecules."

"A hermaphrodite creature, with both + and - [of γ±]

13 March 1959

"With a snap of the fingers, they change into some other compound."

"This is very embarrassing to the Kinetic Theory."

"They find their way out, nothing beats the ingenuity of man."

"They turn to you and say, 'Ah, yes'."

"It is then easy to magic up a few more square terms."

"And also by a certain person in Manchester." [referring to Professor Eley]

"A modest Methuen Monograph."

"This is the great advantage of Thermodynamics, it doesn't have to know what it is considering. It's a sort of 'black magic' if you like."

"One can get peculiar fish altogether."

"Dilute solutions, or as Moore unkindly puts it, 'slightly contaminated distilled water'."

"Steric factors find a chink in the armour."

19 March 1959

"Several people got university professorships on the strength of it, and then proved it wasn't true."

"Lindemann, afterwards Lord Cherwell and Postmaster General."

"The more money you take to the races, the more you can win, because you can back more horses."

"The calculations will then take you about three years, by which time somebody will have proved that your experiment was wrong anyway."

"One can number them on the fingers of one hand, that is there are less than five."


"One quantum, one molecule, it's the same as one man, one wife."

"Usually only the female animals produce it, hence it is called 'amorous fire'. The male, conveniently, is provided with proportionately larger eyes." [of luciferin]

"It's all very well for the New Scientist to wax enthusiastic about the new millennium of radiation chemistry, but it's all rot."

"It doesn't often hit it, but if it hits it, it smashes it."

"Chain reactions are reminiscent of the breeding habits of the house fly." [of branched chain reactions]

Although Physical Chemistry carried away the palm, so to speak, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry were not short of talented, entertaining and witty lecturers.

John [Sam] Roberts had the reputation of being a precise and pedantic man; his lectures on stereochemistry were delivered in a dry manner, occasionally relieved by wit, thus:

"Even though a lecturer may occasionally be allowed to use a slang expression in order to put over an exceptionally tricky point, this practice is to be deprecated and on no account would be sanctioned in an answer to an examination question."

"I don't mind you doing that. I am always reminded that it is a noise made only by the lowest forms of life." [having been hissed, probably in response to the previous quote]

"Giving it the works, to use a vulgar expression."

"Kalo-cilories." [oops, or did he do it on purpose?]

"Has it survived?" [after throwing a rather fragile molecular model across the lecture theatre]

"I'm always chary of using this term 'lebensraum'. One student of mine a couple of years back spelled it 'liebenstraum' in an examination paper." [on stereochemistry]

"There are 'sleeping pricesses' all over the place, if only we know where to find them."

"Has he ever been known to be on time?" [of a persistent latecomer]

"Is he in the right lecture?" [of a student entering late who usually missed his lecture]

"I, personally, never taste a compound until I can put my shirt on it."

"This dienone system is what oxidising agents dream about."

"Now we start our bow and arrow chemistry" [of reaction mechanisms]

"When using curly arrows one must know where they start and finish. They must not be splashed about in a 'Cohen-like' manner."

Norman Greenwood gave excellent lectures; his urbane manner was memorable:

"As I was on my way to the theatre tonight I heard someone remark: 'He must be giving the vote of thanks, he's got a suit on.' Well, I hardly could have been expected to give it in sackcloth and ashes." [from a vote of thanks following a Chemical Society lecture]

"I'm sick of these ruddy wave equations!"

"This reminds me of a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford who set the same paper every year. In order to prevent automatic passing he used to vary the answers he expected."

"When you look up a paper that's a year or two old it's like looking at 'Tiny Tots'. It's ridiculous."

"A fantastic idea, almost goon-like in its fiendish cunning."

"The amount of money spent on hydroboron chemistry in the USA is about $300,000,000 per annum. The amount of money spent annually on chewing gum in the USA is also $300,000,000."

"The old papers were written something like this: 'We let air into the vessel containing the diborane and we are now building a new apparatus'".

"An inorganic compound is any compound containing one element other than carbon."

"Now you will say to yourselves, 'He [Dr. Greenwood] is a silly b*gg*r.' Fair enough, if you can prove it to me, then I am a silly b*gg*r." [from a tutorial]

Brian Duncan Shaw was known for his world-famous 'Explosives' lecture. Selective quotes from any of these are impossible, the entire lecture was a gem.

"Obviously you all know his reputation." [Colonel Shaw being introduced to a lecture audience]

His first year lectures were less spectacular but none the less memorable:

"The rate of reaction doubles, trebles or even quadruples for an increase in temperature of 10oC." [used very frequently and we never forgot it]

"That is one way to rise in the profession" [of a very eminent chemist whose apparatus had exploded]

"They thought you had to add glue to stick the atoms together." [of the original synthesis of hydrazine]

"If my intrepid assistant will come and help me" [of Fred Whetstone, the Chemistry Department's extremely efficient steward]

"I wrote my notes on the floor - at least Fred took pity on me when he saw me bending down and he did. Unfortunately, I can't read Fred's writing so I haven't the faintest idea what demonstration number eight is."

"Snow usually comes down, however this goes up." [of metaldehyde snow]

"Irene, or forty years with the wrong formula."

"By that time I had abandoned my early ambition to be a pirate." [of himself at the age of eight]

"So, as a result of being a good shot, I became a waiter in the officer's mess." [reminiscing]

"When the debaters walked onto the platform it was like machine gun fire." [of a debate when someone - guess who - had laced the platform with ammonium tri-iodide]

Professor Alan Johnson also had his moments:

"I should add that a three-line party whip is out on both occasions." [a 'commercial' for two public lectures]

"Professor Eley will be with us in spirit." [Dan Eley had probably forgotten to come]

"Well, would you believe it, he's left me no white chalk - except what's on the floor." [lecturing immediately after Professor Eley]

"One of the times when it gives us no end of a kick to see you wearing a gown." [of examinations]

"This had drifted in through the window from Praed Street, and if you know Praed Street you wouldn't be surprised." [about Fleming's discovery of penicillin]

"At this point three young ladies walked out. It turned out actually that they had an interview with Unilever." [during a lecture on sex hormones]

"Coniine, this is what did Socrates in."

So did the rest of the staff:

"I'd never seen a molten desiccator before." [Trevor King, describing a research student letting air into a vacuum desiccator full of Raney Nickel]

"The nearer you get to an explosion without actually achieving one, the higher is the yield." [Trevor King, of the Birch reduction. Incidentally, I have seen what was alleged to be the first actual Birch reduction - it was a stain on the ceiling above his bench in the Dyson Perrins Laboratory, Oxford]

"You set your apparatus up and then decide that it is an admirable time to look something up in the library. As you go out, you say to someone 'Keep an eye on this, will you?'" [Trevor King, on the synthesis of anhydrous hydrazine]

"This is the reaction mechanism, believe it or not'" [Harold Booth]

"The yield is very good, if you can manage to retain your product within the limits of your apparatus." [Harold Booth, describing the Skraup quinoline synthesis]

"Oestrogens, from the urine of pregnant stallions." [Harold Booth]

"Oestradiol occurs in beer, it is thus unwise to drink more than ten pints of beer a day." [Harold Booth]

"It's not surprising that the French had something to do with this." [Harold Booth, on sex hormones]

"We all happily accept the fact that Russia thought of it first. It's wrong of course." [Dr (later Professor) C.C. Addison]

"Beer is a colloid." [Geoff Parfitt]

"Well, I've never actually seen one myself. I haven't even seen a picture of one, but it's something like this." [Steve Wallwork describing an infra red spectroscope]

"Soddy, who was one of these first-class eccentrics." [Dr Dennis Tuck]

"The answer is yes, ±1." [Dennis Tuck]

"If there isn't a neutrino there, there is something damned like it." [Dennis Tuck]

"This is something I'm showing you just for laughs." [Dennis Tuck]

"Are you cereous?" [Eric Bullock]

'Rogues Gallery' in order of appearance above
Dan Eley
Dan Eley
Bob Cundall
Bob Cundall
Sam Roberts
Sam Roberts
Norman Greenwood
Norman Greenwood
Brian Shaw
Brian Shaw
Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson
Trevor King
Trevor King
Harold Booth
Harold Booth
Cliff Addison
Cliff Addison
Geoff Parfitt
Geoff Parfitt
Steve Wallwork
Steve Wallwork
Dennis Tuck
Dennis Tuck

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Author : Chris Newall
Page created on : 7th September 2010
Last update : 27th September 2022