January 16th 1952 - 2nd June 2009
27th November 2008
‘Those whom the Gods love……'
I went up to the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich, Norfolk, U.K., in 1970 to read for the B.Sc. degree in the School of Chemical Sciences (CHE). In those days UEA was still under construction and there was a shortage of student accommodation on campus. Along with the other first year students I was given a room in one of the residential blocks of the old WW2, USAAF base called Horsham St. Faith near Norwich Airport. It was in this curious, austere and rather surreal setting that I met two young chemistry undergraduates, who were to become my most dear and cherished friends: Bob Venour (the Editor of Intermediate Organic Chemistry) and David Ball (author of the Preface in Intermediate Organic Chemistry – Why Organic Chemistry?), both of whom like myself were reading for the B.Sc. degree in chemistry. The three of us quickly ‘bonded’ (as chemists often do!), and we became firm friends for the remainder of our time at UEA.
It must be said that the three of us each in our own fashion was quite eccentric. In addition to sharing a love of chemistry, we would spend long hours discussing mysterious, unusual and esoteric subjects in the natural sciences and the history and philosophy of science. Many of our discussions focussed on Einstein's theories of relativity, the nature of time and the possibility of time travel and the construction of hypothetical time machines of the sort envisioned by H. G. Wells in his famous book ‘The Time Machine’. Interestingly the mathematician Gödel produced a solution to some of Einstein's Relativity equations, which permitted human time travel and bypassed the ‘murdering of your own grandfather before you were born’ paradox. But that, as Jack Lemmon said in the film ‘Irma la Douce’, is another story. Legend holds that after their afternoon together Einstein retired to his bedroom in his rooms at the Institute of Advanced Study Princeton to lie down in a confused daze. While he was greatly impressed by Gödel's cunning and creative mathematics, he simultaneously began to doubt, albeit temporarily, the validity of his own Relativity Theory!
In addition to topics in mathematics, physics and chemistry David's scientific knowledge and interests were very broad indeed, embracing in particular the Earth Sciences of vulcanology, earthquakes, thunderstorms, tornados, hurricanes, typhoons, meteorology and climate change. Way back in the early ‘70s David was predicting global warming. He was ahead of his time there! He was interested in the mathematics of Catastrophe Theory, which later metamorphosed into Chaos Theory. He embraced the related theory of Fractals and their application in science and chemistry.
As an undergraduate David was capable of remarkable sustained periods of solitary hard work on his chemistry and had a formidable memory and good revision technique, which paid handsome dividends in his examinations and course tests. He was also a highly original thinker in both chemistry in particular and the natural sciences in general.
Despite being very good at Organic Chemistry, David took the Advanced Inorganic and Theoretical Chemistry options in his third undergraduate year. He graduated with an Upper Second Class Honours degree in Chemical Sciences in 1973. He remained at UEA for the next three years and studied successfully for his doctorate in Inorganic Chemistry under Dr. R. D. Cannon.
After obtaining his doctorate, David joined the staff of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria, where he spent the remainder of his professional career. Bob Venour kept in close constant touch with David over the years, but I only spoke to him for the first time in many years a few months ago in a telephone conversation, when we renewed our friendship and commenced an all too brief correspondence.
It had been planned that the 20th century UEA trio of eccentric chemists would reunite in this 21st Century and make our combined contributions to this website, Intermediate Organic Chemistry.
I recall that late one evening Bob Venour and I chanced upon David, sitting cross-legged, on the floor between the stacks of books in the meteorology section of the UEA Library. He was almost completely surrounded by many large, opened bound volumes of journals dealing with the weather.
‘I am taking the evening off by studying something other than chemistry’, David announced, in reply to my somewhat quizzical look. I was witnessing the hallmark of a truly dedicated scientist at work! I must confess my idea of taking the evening off in those days would probably have involved drinking a pint of lager at a public house, while enjoying a chat and possibly a game of darts with some friends. Then as now, David I raise my hat to you. Nonetheless David did have hobbies, while at university he played chess and whist and worked on his coin collection. In later years he could often be seen riding a powerful motorcycle - typical of his couragous spirit.
Now, however, our eccentric scientific trio seems to be irrevocably broken by David's untimely passing. Or is it? I am not a particularly religious person. In the interests of simplicity for the purposes of form filling and so on, I invariably give my religion as Church of England, but have not attended a Sunday Church of England service since 1966. Nonetheless, there is a spiritual dimension to my make up and I believe in God and some sort of survival of the human spirit after death. I almost invariably say some prayers before going to sleep each night. For some strange and mystical reason I believe our trio remains intact - it is just the nature of some of the ‘bonding’ that has changed slightly. I am confident David will, as planned, still make his future contribution to Intermediate Organic Chemistry. In my own personal opinion David may well make his contribution from a spiritual plane. However, what is absolutely certain in more straightforward terms is that David's powerful scientific mind and enthusiasm made a great and lasting impression on both Bob Venour and myself. Every future contribution we each make to Intermediate Organic Chemistry will be coloured to some greater or lesser extent by our interaction with him during our time as young undergraduates at UEA, nearly forty years ago.
David died on 2nd June 2009 after a brave, stoical and courageous battle with cancer. He was only 57 years old and I am poignantly reminded of the Ancient Greek saying: ‘Those whom the Gods love die young’. I sincerely hope, that I shall be permitted to remain David's friend and scientific colleague for all eternity.
Dr. Julian O. Williams.