Today, 2 February, is Candlemas day, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox. It is officially the end of the Christmas season, though I suspect most people would be surprised to learn this. I only know it because when I was an undergraduate at Bristol I sang in a church choir and we sang on most religious feast days. I recall that we took part in a Candlemas service and processed around the church with candles. The day after Candlemas is the feast of St Blaise, when there is a tradition of blessing throats. At the end of our Candlemas service all the choir went up to receive St Blaise’sblessing of throats. It all sounds very odd, but I’ve been singing happily ever since so don’t knock it! (I think of it like drinking a toast, essentially saying “Well done, chaps”). Anyway, the date of Candlemas stuck in my mind ever since. This year I have an additional reason to remember the date, but more of that later.
I studied chemistry at Bristol. I had enjoyed the subject at school, seeing how substances combined and why. We talk colloquially about “chemistry” between people, referring to how well two people combine.
The School of Chemistry at Bristol back then had a good reputation for organometallic chemistry. This seemed a fascinating area – it was not quite organic chemistry and not quite inorganic chemistry, but a mixture of both, a middle ground. I seem to be drawn to the land in the middle. Organometallic chemistry seemed closer to inorganic chemistry, at any rate most of the inorganic lecturers were devoted to organometallic research. One of the authors of the inorganic chemistry textbook we used (Cotton and Wilkinson) was Geoffrey Wilkinson, who had received a Nobel prize not long before for his work on organometallic sandwich compounds. I recall learning about nickel carbonyls, and ferrocene.
Ferrocene is an extraordinary substance, a sandwich of two organic ring molecules with an iron atom in the middle of the sandwich. The standard representation of its structure is quite striking. We also heard about various more exotic metals. Our professor of inorganic chemistry was another prominent organometallic chemist, Gordon Stone. I remember him telling us about his favourite metal, ruthenium (Ru), and there was also rhodium (Rh) and rhenium (Re) .. And palladium (Pd). These metals are all useful as catalysts in the petrochemicals industry, so this field was important industrially as well as being fascinating.
I haven’t given it much thought since leaving chemistry behind in favour of librarianship, but I found myself recalling some of this a few months ago as I went on a shopping trip to buy some palladium. Well, I didn’t plan to buy palladium especially, but that’s how it turned out. If I tell you that we were shopping in London’s Hatton Garden then you can probably guess why. We bought two rings, not the molecular kind, but rings to go on fingers. To go on our ring fingers. They are made of palladium and I think they look quite attractive, and are a bit cheaper than gold or platinum. And it seemed appropriate for an ex-chemist.They are catalysing a new combination.
Since then the rings have been secreted away in a cupboard. We got busy with making further plans. We had to register our intention to have a Civil Partnership, book the registrars and a room in the local Civic Centre, book the local pub/Thai restaurant, send out invitations, buy new outfits for the day, order a cake, order some flowers, decide on music, write a short speech, booked a holiday, and a dozen or two other little jobs.
Today, 2 Feb, all the planning is at an end. The rings are coming out into the open and by lunchtime we will be Civil Partners. Official! And I will be walking round with a lump of a really powerful catalyst on my finger.