I was once asked to pick my ‘ultimate chemistry hero’ for a series on great scientists. It was a hard decision – there are a lot of great chemists out there – so in the end I ducked the question and turned it into a sort of joke. The perfect light entertainment to revisit just before Christmas, I thought.
I picked Melvin Calvin as my hero. But it was only because of an amusing story I was told by the legendary John Kilcoyne that I began to take serious notice of Calvin’s work. That said, Calvin is a man worthy of standing alongside some of the other giants of the chemical sciences. Most scientists will instantly associate Calvin with the famous biochemical cycle, named in his honour, which he elucidated. In the 1950s, when Calvin carried out his work, little was known about the details of photosynthesis and the idea that carbon dioxide was the feedstock for making plants’ sugary foodstuffs wasn’t widely accepted.
Calvin set about conducting torturously complex experiments to assess the impact of everything from light, pH, carbon dioxide and oxygen on photosynthesis. All this needed an elaborate array of instruments and Calvin’s 1955 paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society has a figure showing one such set up. It looks like exactly the sort of thing a stereotypical mad scientist would dream up and was undoubtedly exacting both to set up and use on a daily basis.
I wasn’t lucky enough to ever meet Calvin (he died in 1997), but according to Kilcoyne he was a serious man with little patience for jokes or pleasantries. This contrasted starkly with his graduate student, A. T. Wilson, who was, it would seem, a bit of a practical joker. Wilson reputedly made a wager with his departmental secretary that he could sneak in a picture of a man fishing into one of the diagrams in a forthcoming paper without his supervisor noticing. He won his bet and the fishing man is still in the diagram today. Calvin never found out.
Silly stories aside, Calvin’s work was immensely important and he received the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it. The mechanisms of photosynthesis which he helped work out still seem magical to us today; that a plant can take literally thin air and turn it into energy-storing organic compounds is quite incredible. But interestingly we face an analogous challenge today in the shape of the seemingly impossible task of generating cheap, clean energy. It seems clear we need more chemistry heroes of at least the same calibre as Calvin to address this problem. And what with the hard work it will inevitably take, a sense of humour would probably help too.
This is an edited version of a story that was originally published on the Chemistry World blog.
Josh Howgego spent the last four years peering into round bottomed flasks, working on a chemistry PhD. Now he has turned his hand to writing about science, and is currently studying science communication at Imperial College London. Follow on Twitter: @jdhowgego
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