Chemist challenged

It probably hasn’t escaped the notice of UK-based readers that the winners of University Challenge, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, have been stripped of their crown, after it turned out that one of the team was no longer a student when the final rounds were filmed.

The guilty party was studying chemistry (I read somewhere that he got a first) and graduated after the first two rounds had been recorded. This has attracted vast swathes of media attention, partly because the final itself was jolly exciting and partly because of the media coverage of the vastly intelligent love/hate figure, Corpus Christi captain Gail Trimble. Check out some of the clips on YouTube.

Apart from the reasonably tenuous link to chemistry, I thought this needed blogging about (not just because I was once on the show – and I managed to read and understand the rules) because it reminded me of the host, Jeremy Paxman, and his generally poor knowledge of science (compared to his impressive knowledge of other areas).

Some lapses, like the 2 or 3 takes pronouncing ‘superfluidity’, I can forgive, but all too often he gives teams the points for science answers that are just wrong, but sound a bit similar. Such as ‘momentum’, when the answer was ‘angular momentum’. He’d never let them get away with saying Anne Brontë, not Emily, wrote Wuthering Heights. I suppose it’s another reflection of The Two Cultures – but that doesn’t mean to say I have to like it!

Other angles you might like to discuss amongst yourselves: someone with a first in chemistry from Oxford goes to work for PWC, even in today’s credit-crunched climate, happily abandoning science for accountancy. Oxbridge colleges getting separate entry into University Challenge. Would the media whirlwind around ‘cleverest ever contestant’ Gail Trimble have been so frenzied had she been male? I can practically hear the dissertations being written across the country!

To shoe-horn in some proper chemistry, I’ve noticed that both Chemistry World and Angewandte Chemie have articles about the periodic table (subscriptions required for both). The CW one is slightly lighter reading, so I haven’t got through the Angewandte one just yet. But it’s interesting to see slightly different takes on this icon of chemistry. Here’s a trivia snippet to whet your appetite: it was only in the 1940s that Glenn Seaborg rescued the actinides from being ‘inner transition elements’.


Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)