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SATNAV's Evening With: Professor David Phillips

Professor David Phillips CBE FRS, Past President of the Royal Society of Chemistry and University of Birmingham alumnus, gave this year’s EPS Distinguished Lecture. Starting his journey as a Birmingham undergraduate in 1957, he went on to have an extremely successful and fulfilling academic career in photochemistry. Here you can see SATNAV’s coverage of the Distinguished Lecture and round table discussion, as well as our exclusive interview.

Exclusive Interview

To kick off the evening, SATNAV met with Professor David Phillips for an exclusive interview.

To see the video interview, go to

Professor Phillips, thank you so much for joining us today. As a University of Birmingham alumnus, what’s it like being back, and are there any noticeable changes?

The biggest change of all, of course, is the size...and I think the quality of the university. It is 10 times larger than when I was here in terms of number of students—there were only 3500 when I was here. And I think the international reputation of the university, as it is now, is incomparable—it is a top university in the world, and you sense that when you’re on the campus. So it’s good to come home, as it were, but to a much larger home.

Do you have any memories of your time at the University of Birmingham that really stick out in your mind?

On the evening of 22nd November 1963, I visited the union bar, which was normally a very lively place. As I went over that evening, I heard the news about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. The atmosphere was like I had never experienced before, or was very subdued, and people were weeping. He was such a popular president, and represented hope for young people across the world. It had added poignancy for me because I had, by then, accepted to do a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas.

Was there anything in particular that drew you to the field of photochemistry?

In Texas, I was particularly concerned with what happens to a molecule when you excite it with light, and how the energy that it gains could be dissipated. One way is chemical decomposition, which I’d been studying in Birmingham. Luminescence is another—giving out of light as fluorescence or phosphorescence—that has come to have enormous significance in areas like microscopy. Also, intriguingly, some molecules absorb light...and then do nothing. The energy is dissipated as heat, and so you see no obvious sign of it having absorbed light. This intrigued me: why would some molecules do that, and others do interesting things, like decompose or fluoresce? Understanding the structure of the molecules, which dictated their fates, became a kind of obsession for me.

You've previously expressed views about the public's scepticism on nuclear power. How do you think its reputation could be improved in a time when the eradication of fossil fuels is becoming increasingly vital?

I gave those views at a time when I firmly believed the hole in our generation capacity could only be filled by nuclear power. However, other renewable forms of power have progressed much faster than we thought. If we could crack the energy storage problem, we could store electrical energy from sunlight, or wind and wave power, and then we’d have no need for other generating forms. In 10 or 20 years’ time I don’t think we will still be looking into nuclear power, but in the short term, we should be. But how do we convince people we need to do this? Well, running out of energy would be one way, and we are in danger of doing that! The other is to engage with the public in a way that recognises their fears but gives potent reasons for why we should be doing this.

For our next issue, SATNAV are focusing on 'The Science of Film and TV'. Have there been any science films or TV shows that you've found particularly influential?

I’m very old-fashioned in my views on this. Until 1967, I didn’t have a television set, so radio broadcasts were the most influential for me. But what were a must for me when I was younger were the BBC TV Horizon programmes. I thought they were a model for what we should be doing—the presenters were usually behind the scenes and conducted things out of the limelight. The modern style is that most of the programme is about the presenter rather than the science they’re trying to get across. Personally, I’d rather know about the science!

Do you have any career ambitions you're still hoping to achieve?

I would like to see an appreciation of chemistry amongst the general public, and for it to regain the position it had in the 1950s. I think that we as a subject haven’t worked hard enough to get across the general utility and beauty of chemistry. It’s something I try to do by giving public lectures. I have also had some wonderful people working for me over the years. Seeing my students succeed is something I have enjoyed, and I look forward to even better things in the future.

Roundtable Discussion

A group of 11 science and engineering students sat down with Professor Phillips to find out more about his illuminating life and career. The roundtable discussion focused on David’s opinion of the changing landscape of higher education and his time spent working abroad (especially in the USA and USSR). As a proud Birmingham alumnus and long-standing academic, David began by reflecting on his time as a chemistry student 60 years ago. He acknowledged the differences between then and now: only a 5% minority of young people held a university degree, compared to 45% nowadays. As advice to the current generation of young adults, David emphasised the importance of “selling yourself well” and “not to neglect other attributes that you have—be it sportsman, musician or linguist—as assets that should come to the fore”. Moreover, he remarked that “the UK has lost sight of the role of technicians within its scientific community”, highlighting that the skills of a scientist and a technician are very different, complementary and equally important. He feels passionately about the issue, and had campaigned for better promotion of technical careers (alongside scientific ones) when he was President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Recalling his time in the Soviet Union he gave the unique perspective of a westerner in Russia during the height of the cold war. When asked about the similarities and differences between studying in the UK and in Soviet Russia, he addressed the lack of equipment available to academics (due to sanctions) and how institutions suffered as a result—an often overlooked side-effect of living in a politically tense era.

David also described some of the more unexpected aspects of his time in the USSR. For instance, being taught Russian, using the Russian State library despite their strict policies on checking out books, and more daunting aspects such as being "the only Westerner working in an institute of 2,000 people". It was more-so these cultural changes that he had to become accustomed to, as he found the science itself to be fairly universal with few differences in practice. Despite these difficulties, David spoke highly of his time abroad and gave the overwhelming impression to the students that these rare opportunities shouldn't be missed.

Lecture: Light Up Your Life

As Professor Phillips began setting up for his lecture, familiar faces began filing in. The front row of the theatre was soon filled by the Class of 1961; David’s peers from his time at the University of Birmingham. Surrounded by old friends, David began the lecture by reminiscing about his time at Birmingham with old photos of the campus and community. He gave both heartfelt and amusing anecdotes; for example, as dedicated chemists David and his peers used to sneak back into the Haworth Building in the evenings through an open window to work on their experiments! His career in chemistry took him from Birmingham to Texas, and then to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Moscow where he worked on producing light from dyes.

To demonstrate a modern application of this, David began throwing glow sticks to members of the audience! Having completely immersed himself in the Russian culture, David told us stories of dancing with Bolshoi ballerinas, and of colleagues with impressive tolerances for vodka! He then returned to the UK to work as a professor at the University of Southampton, before moving to the Royal Institution and finally to Imperial College London where he has been for 28 years.

David went on to demonstrate some of the applications of photochemistry. He showed the fluorescence induced by electrical current by holding a fluorescent light tube against a plasma ball lamp, causing it to glow only up to where he was holding it. He also talked about his work in medicine, particularly in photodynamic therapy cancer treatment where dye is injected into the body and irradiated, causing it to become toxic and kill cancer cells. A particularly amusing demonstration involved a glass baby filled with the yellow chemical bilirubin that, in excess, is responsible for jaundice. David showed that it is not normally water soluble by filling the baby with water and shaking vigorously, noting that the liquids didn’t mix. However, after irradiating it with blue light, the bilirubin dissolved in the water and was able to be flushed out. This is how jaundice is cured in newborns.

He then gave us an insight into some of his career highlights including being invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace, signing the Royal Society Charter Book and giving a lecture to over a thousand people in Berlin. David ended the lecture with some words of inspiration: enjoy life, do what you’re interested in rather than taking the safe options, and seize the opportunities that come your way.

The lecture then drew to a close and both lecturer and attendees filed down to the Haworth Building foyer for a reception and a chance to discuss the lecture. The space was buzzing with energy from David's exploration into his life, and he had clearly struck a chord with scientists and nonscientists alike. Towards the end of term when students were starting to feel the stress of impending deadlines, it was amazing to see how David had reinvigorated their love for science. He made his field of work sound accessible, fascinating and truly fun! One attendee told SATNAV the following: "When he told stories of his life it felt like I was

there with him. It's made me so excited to see where science might take me."

SATNAV would like to thank David Phillips and the EPS team for the opportunity to get involved with this incredible evening, as well as the interview and the roundtable discussion.

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