Norman Greenwood (1925-2012) was born in Australia and graduated from Melbourne University before going to Cambridge. His wide-ranging research in inorganic and structural chemistry made major advances in the chemistry of boron hydrides and other main-group element compounds. He also pioneered the application of Mössbauer spectroscopy to problems in chemistry. He was a prolific writer and inspirational lecturer on chemical and educational themes, and held numerous visiting professorships throughout the world.
So, the ideas of teaching, the fact that inorganic chemistry was an equal third of the syllabus, should be taught in all years, and that it was broader than just the factual basis and the current theory were, I think, innovations which I was beginning to bring into the teaching of chemistry. And it also went further. I realised that the teachers of chemistry at school had a difficult time, particularly as chemistry was increasing, and if you put more and more into a syllabus it becomes sterile, it becomes memory. In fact to my undergraduates – and Brian you might remember this in Nottingham but it was the same in Newcastle – I said in my first lecture to the beginning students, ‘Chemistry at a university is different from chemistry at school. You’re not here just to learn the facts, you’ll learn to gain understanding and to apply it’. And I said, ‘What you must not become is matriculated sponges’ – that was the phrase that I used. ‘If you are a matriculated sponge, you come in, you absorb the re-distilled knowledge and understanding of your lecturer, and at an examination you are squeezed and it all comes out again, and at the end you leave just as empty as when you came in – it’s much more than that’. And I was trying to get that broader perspective over.
Title: University must not produce matriculated sponges!
Professor Brian FG Johnson FRS, FRSE, FRS Chem, FAcad Eu, FAS. Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Edinburgh 1991-1995, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Cambridge 1995-2005, Master Fitzwilliam College Cambridge 1999-2005. Research interests include studies of transition metal carbonyls, organometallic chemistry, nano- particles and homogeneous catalysis. Professor Johnson is the author of over 1000 research articles and papers.