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Building up my information for Chemistry of the Elements


Chemistry of the Elements
Norman Greenwood Scientist
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[Q] Well, it’s been a delight listening to your aspects of chemistry, the way you got into it, so on and so forth, but it seems to me one of the most important contributions you made, together with Earnshaw, was this magnificent textbook, which of course has a worldwide and wonderful reputation. Can you tell me a bit about the thought process that you went through before you produced the book?

Well , yes it was a big undertaking as you can imagine, and for those who are perhaps not familiar with it, I could just indicate something about the size. It’s about... well , depending on which edition you use, about 1500 large pages, so it’s a substantial book, and it aims to cover the whole of the chemistry of the elements which is what the book was called.

I’ve spoken a little bit about my philosophy of teaching in universities and that is reflected in the book, but specifically for that, what I’d felt was that many of the textbooks that were available were either sectional, in other words they dealt with one part of inorganic chemistry, or they were not specifically designed to be a teaching book but were carrying information.

Now I had in my mind, and I started this alone, actually Alan dug me out of a hole later because it was taking much longer than I expected and he very kindly helped me finish it off, but for about the first three or four years that I was working on this I was doing it alone. And perhaps the simplest thing would be to tell you the process I went through and how it turned out.

The first thing that I wanted to emphasise was that chemistry was exciting, wondrous even, that when properly understood a lot of it is very straightforward, it is accessible, but it has to be presented in a reasonable form. That the facts of chemistry are astounding often, but also we have to remember that a compound might be beautiful to look at, it may be readily made or difficultly made, but might also be useful. And so I wanted to join the idea of the actuality rather than just an abstract idea of chemistry.

To be specific, if I mentioned a compound, or a group of compounds, was it something that had been made once and was only stable at liquid nitrogen temperature? Or was it something that is made in megaton quantities, and if it’s made in megaton quantities, how and why? So it brought in some industrial chemistry without the industrial processes being there, it was also the usefulness.

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.

Listeners: Brian Johnson

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.

Tags: Chemistry of the Elements, Alan Earnshaw

Duration: 3 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2011

Date story went live: 25 November 2011