I was once asked to pick my ‘ultimate chemistry hero’ for a series on great scientists. It was a hard decision – there are a lot of great chemists out there – so in the end I ducked the question and turned it into a sort of joke. The perfect light entertainment to revisit just before Christmas, I thought.
I picked Melvin Calvin as my hero. But it was only because of an amusing story I was told by the legendary John Kilcoyne that I began to take serious notice of Calvin’s work. That said, Calvin is a man worthy of standing alongside some of the other giants of the chemical sciences…
Calvin set about conducting torturously complex experiments to assess the impact of everything from light, pH, carbon dioxide and oxygen on photosynthesis. All this needed an elaborate array of instruments and Calvin’s 1955 paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society has a figure showing one such set up. It looks like exactly the sort of thing a stereotypical mad scientist would dream up and was undoubtedly exacting both to set up and use on a daily basis.
Here’s the diagram – can you spot anything unusual about it yet?
I wasn’t lucky enough to ever meet Calvin (he died in 1997), but according to Kilcoyne he was a serious man with little patience for jokes or pleasantries. This contrasted starkly with his graduate student, A. T. Wilson, who was, it would seem, a bit of a practical joker. Wilson reputedly made a wager with his departmental secretary that he could sneak in a picture of a man fishing into one of the diagrams in a forthcoming paper without his supervisor noticing. He won his bet and the fishing man is still in the diagram today. Calvin never found out.