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The surprising results of our boron trifluoride experiments


Ray Martin and I get our PhDs in record time
Norman Greenwood Scientist
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So certainly boron trifluoride ether was a well-known organic reagent, was used in catalysis, so I thought: I'll make some, purify it, and see if it conducts electricity. And this was the stage that I'd got to when Ray came. And he surveyed the various possibilities. Emeléus had said, ‘Find out what's going on, see what you like', and I think Bob Haszeldine made a pitch for him. But Ray didn't particularly like that branch of the work, so he said, ‘Well, frankly, I think this has got great potential. I think, you know, if you don't mind my coming in with you, there's plenty of room for more than one person'. And I was delighted because it was true – there was room for several people who had been working there. And so we formed what turned out to be a very productive team. I think we both got PhDs in record time... because we already had a Master's degree from Melbourne the rules enabled us to get a PhD, which is normally three years – we could get it in two years. And because I was maximising – and Ray did the same – holidays by being elsewhere, I calculated that I'd spent rather less than 12 months in actual time in the lab. And the reason was because as we shared a room, or a set of rooms with a double bedroom, we used to go to bed at night and talk chemistry, and we'd talk until one of us fell asleep, which was usually about three o'clock, and so we could plan how to do an experiment, how to approach it, what we would need. The big advice that was important, that Emeléus gave us, was: if you're working in the same general area, make sure that you keep the parts separate so that each of you has a separate part of work that you have done for your thesis. So we bore that in mind and carved up the field – Ray did some, I did another – but it was cognate to each other's work, and we could appreciate each other's problems and discuss the work.

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: University of Cambridge, Ray Martin, Harry Emeléus, Robert Haszeldine

Duration: 2 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2011

Date story went live: 25 November 2011