I first came across Lee Cronin (wiki page, group page) in the Observer newspaper last year whilst sat in the pub on a Sunday afternoon having a few pints, and watching Arsenal get pummeled 8-2 by Manchester United. A very good Sunday by all accounts, but browsing through the paper I came across an interview with Lee Cronin, and a picture of him with a ‘sexy’ looking ‘chemistry experiment’ that immediately filled me with rage.
Why? you might ask. Well, I will tell you. It wasn’t Cronin himself, or the answers to the questions – I was so incensed by the photo alone I didn’t get that far. Just look:
This looks like a very exciting experiment, yes. But do you see where those blue arrows are pointing? Well let me tell you about those little silver trays the round bottom flasks are sitting in. Those little silver trays are not just pretty stands as it may appear, but very expensive kit used when you need to heat chemical reactions. They cost nearly $200 EACH.
It is important to know that these are not magic, they do not generate heat alone (note the lack of cables). Their function is to transfer heat efficiently from an electrically powered stirrer hot plate (the blue thing in the bottom middle of the picture) to the chemical reaction in the flask, and to do this they have to be ON TOP of the stirrer hotplate. Quite clearly this is a terrible misuse of equipment, and their role in reality, is just to make a sexier picture.
To be honest this does not really bother me at all, I love a sexy science picture (via @L_Howes) as much as the next person. What it really comes down to is jealously. If I need a little stand for my round bottom flasks I have to use this:
A very unsexy cork ring (this is the best photo of a cork ring you can find, so bear in mind that in real life they don’t even come close to what you see in this photo – these are back-lit, airbrushed, celebrity cork rings). These come in at a still excessive, but comparatively reasonable £8.60 each.
Maybe it was just naked jealousy, maybe it was the 3 (or 5) pints, or maybe even the fact Arsenal had just pulled a goal back, but my building internal rage was enough to dismiss the article and hate Lee Cronin forever. If I never read about him again it would be too soon.
But it is here a problem arises. As a scientist, I tend to read about science quite a lot, and if someone has something interesting to say they tend to crop up time and time again – and try as I may, I just couldn’t keep away from Mr Cronin. Fortunately for him though, next time he popped into my life was via TED, and I like TED. I was not in the pub. No football was on the television. I was at an emotional equilibrium. This meant Leroy Cronin, the lucky man, got a second chance. And boy did he take it.
Cronin’s talk is essentially about creating life, but not within the traditional realm of biology and carbon based organisms (including us) we are used to. He suggests we should re-define ‘life’ and consider anything that competes, replicates and survives as being alive. Using this definition Cronin discusses his goal is to create ‘life’ using non-organic i.e. non-carbon based materials. This is a fascinating talk whether you agree with his premise of not – personally I think he definitely has some room for manoeuvre. It fits very nicely with what many of you have recently suggested, that ‘chemistry is life’.
As you can probably tell, I don’t hate Lee Cronin at all. It is just as everybody knows: as well as a sexy photo, every story needs an attention seeking headline!
[Just a note for those of you who do not know TED, the videos are very accessible and require no scientific background]