The Sceptical Chymist | A bit of a fischy answer

Published in Chemistry

Readers in the UK will probably be aware of the TV quiz show ‘University Challenge’. It’s a general knowledge quiz in which teams representing universities and colleges from the UK compete (there’s no monetary reward, only the honour of winning). The questions asked are all pretty challenging, and it’s clear from watching the show that the question master — Jeremy Paxman — is extremely knowledgeable about…some of them. This is a fact that Neil has mentioned here before.

In my experience, chemistry rarely gets a good representation in the questions – the ‘chemistry’ questions have been known to include things like: ‘Name three of the four elements whose names spelt in British English end in ‘um’ but not ‘ium’. With a good 5–10 minutes to mentally work my way through the periodic table I could have done this (although there would never be enough time to do this on the show) but more importantly it doesn’t strike me as being about chemistry.

And hence to the point of this post: Paxman sometimes accepts answers slightly different than those on the question card – if he feels that the contestants have demonstrated that they have the right idea. Last night there were quite a few chemistry questions. Of particular note was a question asking for the type of compounds formed by the Fischer–Tropsch process. The answer on the card was hydrocarbons. The contestants were stumped. They nearly had it, but I would argue that their answer of ‘hydrogen and carbon’ wasn’t quite close enough. These two elements are not hydrocarbons. Paxman, however, awarded the points.

If we as chemists want people to understand what we do and why our jobs are important, then the subject needs to be represented more accurately in the mainstream media. Most chemists don’t learn to recite the periodic table, and don’t really care about how many elements end in ‘um’ and not ‘ium’— it has, after all, little to do with similarities in the respective elements reactivity.

I’m also not arguing that Jeremy Paxman should have known that the answer to the Fischer–Tropsch question was wrong. And I for one would love to see more questions like this included, but there needs to be guidance about what is a suitable alternative answer and what isn’t. Would he have been willing to award the points had the contestants offered a few real hydrocarbons such as propane and butane? I think this would be a far more valid answer, but I’d wager that it wouldn’t have done the contestants any good.

So here is a challenge for all of you. Can we come up with some questions that are really about chemistry, and that are:

1) Difficult (but not so tough that you wouldn’t have a chance of understanding them without a PhD in the topic area).

2) About things that you’d like a reasonably rounded individual — not necessarily a scientist — to have some idea of.

If you want you could even provide possible alternative answers that you think really are ‘close enough’.

I think the Fischer–Tropsch question would be about the right level – I’d be hard pressed to name a reaction you could consider more industrially important (there are of course a few that are equal)…


Stephen Davey (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

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