In my dream last night I was attending, as myself at my present age, an undergraduate chemistry lecture in Canada. The lecturer, who was well-prepared and interesting, talked about some chemical compound that had a twenty-five year delay before it was activated. Then it could be set off by, for instance, the rumble of traffic. What happened on activation I’ve forgotten or never knew.
I asked a question, something like: ‘It’s quite a long time since I had my last chemistry lesson so could you explain a bit more fully?’ I’d thought of adding that in fact I’d never in my life had a single chemistry lesson, which is true, but didn’t want to outstay my welcome. As it was, my question evoked some laughter.
I don’t know how the lecturer responded except that she was nice about it, but in the audience was a colleague from my own department. I'll call her Eileen because I haven’t known anyone called Eileen since 1984 (Eileen Daffern, admirable communist co-director of the Centre for Resources in European Studies (or similar) -- six empty rooms, some notepaper and a lot of books -- at Sussex University). I was a frequent guest at pseudo-Eileen’s dinner parties, and came to realise I was something of a trophy, possibly because of my British accent and because I came with jokes, in which Canada was not self-sufficient. Her face wreathed in smiles at my question, she turned round to beam at me and then at all her friends in the hall as if to say, ‘Isn’t he wonderful? Isn’t this a great find I've bagged?’
Where did the dream come from? I don’t know but I was impressed by what my Canadian humanities students knew about science from their broad high school curriculum and the range of subjects they took in first year university.
My other observation about chemistry is that the chemists I've known -- not a large sample -- have been more interesting, more cultured and more human than the physicists.