Science Book a Day Interviews Simon Cotton


Special thanks to Simon Cotton for answering 5 questions about his recently featured co-authored book – Molecules That Amaze Us

Simon Cotton is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Chemistry. He has written five books, three as sole author; a sixth is due to be published in late 2011. He has published extensively in the chemistry of the d- and f-block metals. He taught for some 30 years in state and independent secondary schools and has been closely involved in promoting chemistry, whether visiting feeder schools with activities such as Magic Shows, or with extension by lectures and writing. – University of Birmingham Profile

#1 – What was the impetus for Molecules that Amaze Us?

Its inception goes back over 20 years. Peter Atkins’ great book “Molecules” was an influence on me – as I am sure to many others – in making me think about ways of making molecules interesting to students. Then round about 1992 I happened to see a magazine article about phenylethylamine in chocolate and the suggestion that it could be an aphrodisiac. I started producing A4 handouts for students, all you want to know about a molecule on one sheet, cutting text into chunks and interspersing it with structures. The result in 1996 was an article about Molecular Soundbites in Education in Chemistry, to be followed by a series that ran for about 15 years. In the meanwhile, the school I had been teaching in closed rather suddenly in 1994, and I spent the next two years on short-term contracts up and down England, so I had a lot of long drives during which I could think chemistry. I remember planning a sheet explaining how a sherbet lemon works while heading north up the M1 on Friday evening, trying to keep ahead of the rush hour.

#2 – How did you come to choose the molecules that you put into the book?

They are all interesting molecules, though we tried to keep a balance. Some we had written up before for the Bristol MOTM site, but those were updated, whilst some were brand new.

#3 – You present a lot of information about each molecule. In what ways were you trying to represent these molecules?

All the molecules have a story about them. We were trying to tell that story, explaining how these molecules do what they do. Interesting people, interesting chemicals.

#4 – Who have you written this book for? Students? The public? Teachers? Have you received any feedback from these groups?

One obvious target group is students – and their teachers – each side of the school-university transition. Both in the UK and outside. Chemistry is universal. But we also wanted to write a book that was both interesting and intelligible to non-scientists. I gave a copy to my cousin Linda, who is an artist, and she has really enjoyed it, as have a number of people from arts backgrounds. We try to tell stories that involve interesting molecules and try to explain what they do, as far as we can, in non-technical language.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you could tell us about?

Well, I am a retired schoolteacher who is spending their retirement doing some university teaching (organic and inorganic chemistry). This means that I am in a stimulating environment, though obviously only part of my time can be spent on these projects. At the moment I am working on a second edition of my book “Lanthanide and Actinide Chemistry” (John Wiley 2006). I did my PhD in the chemistry and spectroscopy – mainly EPR – of iron(III) complexes, and postdoctoral research working, inter alia, with organo- lanthanides and actinides. So professionally I am a d- and f-block chemist, but any chemicals are fair game. Carbon compounds are too interesting to be left to organic chemists. I have one or two other things, podcasts for the RSC Chemistry World site [   ] and blogs for The Conversation  [   ]

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