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Peter Wothers - Four Way Interview

Dr Peter Wothers is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Chemistry at St Catharine's College. He is heavily involved in promoting chemistry to young students and members of the public, and, in 2010, created the popular Cambridge Chemistry Challenge competition for students in the UK. Peter is known nationally and internationally for his demonstration lectures and presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, titled The Modern Alchemist, in 2012. In 2014, he was awarded an M.B.E. for Services to Chemistry in the Queen's Birthday Honours.. His new book is Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf.

Why chemistry?

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with chemistry from about the age of 8.  I built up quite a substantial home laboratory with all sorts of things that are (quite rightly) banned now (such as white phosphorus) and also used to go to second-hand bookshops to find chemistry texts.  Eventually I bought my first historic book (from the mid-19th century) in which much of the chemistry was wrong; the formula for water was given as HO and there were many ‘made up’ element names, such as norm, polonium, ilmenium.  This started my passion for the early history of my subject and the (very expensive) obsession with old chemistry books.

Why this book?

The centre of my book collection is the reform of chemical nomenclature in the late 18th century.  I wanted to show others why I get so passionate about it.

What's next?

My usual day job is lecturing at the University of Cambridge, so finding the time to sit down and write can be tricky.  However, I do have a fun idea for a sequel...

What's exciting you at the moment?

Some of the latest rare books that I have managed to track down are exciting.  At the moment, I am particularly excited about my first 15th century book — the Mineralibus of Albertus Magnus that features in my book.  I am also really excited about one of my favourite books from the 19th century which I have just found a copy of written in Marathi.  I do not think its existence is widely known so I hope to write about it soon.


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