Test tubes and pretty colours

Book interview: Bernard Bulkin, ‘Solving Chemistry’

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In the 20th century we discovered virtually everything remaining to be known about chemistry. Despite that, it still has a vital role to play in engineering applications, says former BP chief scientist Bernie Bulkin.

“I didn’t want to write a simple history of chemistry in the 20th century,” says Bernie Bulkin. “I believe we engage people by telling stories. That’s what makes us human beings.” Bulkin is discussing his latest book, ‘Solving Chemistry: A Scientist’s Journey’: in effect part biography of the discipline of chemistry and part autobiography of a chemist, both presented through tales of the problems he worked on as a professional chemist.

“I talk about how I worked on a problem of a simple molecular structure or a chemical reaction, both of which had already been studied. But the answers had either been wrong or inconclusive.” His book’s over-arching theme? “If you take what I did, and multiply it, you have the story of chemistry.”

As a scientist, Bulkin is best known for rising though the ranks at petrochem giant BP to eventually become the organisation’s chief scientist, a position created for him by former CEO John Browne. As an author, he is known for his highly regarded book on executive leadership, ‘Crash Course’, in which he articulates a rethinking of time-worn management approaches, in particular dispensing with PowerPoint presentations. It’s a book that adds clear-headed pragmatism and lateral thinking to his unquestionable prowess as a scientist.

‘Solving Chemistry’ takes us away from management-technique analysis and into the rigours of a discipline Bulkin served for four decades. Its overall premise might come as something of a surprise to those standing at the dawn of a technological era in which discovery and innovation are the key drivers. The 76-year-old British-American scientist asserts that “all the major problems in chemistry have been solved. There are some details to fill in around the edges, but the beautiful painting that is the total knowledge of chemistry is virtually complete.” He goes on to say that this is an “amazing achievement”, especially considering that back at the beginning of the 20th century we were still arguing about whether molecules exist.

“Today, we wouldn’t even think of asking such a question. We didn’t know anything about how atoms are arranged in space. We didn’t have any idea of how to predict what would be the product of reactions. All these problems, and many more, were solved during the 20th century, particularly during the period of 1950-2000. As a result, we have something unanticipated: a major scientific discipline that is more or less complete.”

The reason we have been able to ‘solve chemistry’ is in part to do with Bulkin’s instinct that “to some extent chemistry is easier” than physics, biology or mathematics. “People like to think of chemistry as the ‘central science’, and I think that is true in two respects. It sits between physics and biology. Physics isn’t nearly solved in the same way because some of its fundamental problems, such as quantum mechanics, are almost at the limits of human understanding. On the other side, biology is not solved because the problems are so complex. At the same time, chemistry as the central science is helping to solve problems on either side. So yes, it is ‘easier’, but it’s a little more subtle than that.”

We read it for you

Solving Chemistry

Chemistry is now complete. All the major problems have been solved and there are no more great discoveries to be made. So says Bernie Bulkin in his book, ‘Solving Chemistry’.

Bulkin worked as a scientist for four decades, both as a research academic and later in industry as head of science at BP. His book narrates a personal and professional journey, from his early days making his own equipment in the lab in the 1960s to solving some of the big issues in the oil and gas sector. It is also the story of chemistry in the second half of the 20th century, covering the research that led to the unravelling of chemistry’s remaining major conundrums. Discussing this progress, Bulkin shows how the discipline has matured from defining itself to making major contributions in the fields of biology, medicine, materials science and the environment.

The relevance of chemistry today for Bulkin is that we would simply not have arrived at the point in technology we find ourselves at today without it. “Absolutely. We had to develop the fundamental understanding of how electricity manifested itself in materials before we could have the breakthroughs in semiconductors, which led to modern electronics, which was a triumph of chemistry and solid-state physics.” On the manufacturing side, Bulkin says that to make circuits practically small there needed to be a “triumph in the chemistry of polymers and their interaction with light”.

Having been a researcher in academia, Bulkin moved into industry, “just as chemical enterprise was focusing more on applied problems. When I joined BP, I found myself solving problems that were quite different from the sort of fundamental problems I’d been dealing with up until that point.”

For Bulkin, this is where chemistry ‘joins up’ with engineering: “A very big part of this was the creation of the toolkit. There were, of course, peripheral tools like high-speed computing, lasers and so on. But the really big breakthrough was the arrival of things like X-ray diffraction, infrared spectroscopy and other techniques that allowed you to ‘see’ molecules, either directly or indirectly. That’s what really allowed us to do the exploration that led us to find out where and what everything is.”

Today, he says, it’s easy to find out what the products of a reaction are. “It’s not a PhD concept any more – an undergraduate with a minimal amount of training can do that. But, when I started in the late 1950s, if we wanted to figure out the product of a reaction we carried out other reactions.”

This deductive and iterative process, bearing more than a family resemblance to trial and error, was supported by a body of literature “littered with mistakes. And until we could get rid of these mistakes, we couldn’t see the patterns in chemistry. It looked like there were 10,000 different reactions, but once we got rid of the mistakes and started to systematise the process, we could see that they fitted into maybe five categories, each one a variant of the other.”

Having seen a lot of change in chemistry – much of which has happened during his career – does this lead Bulkin to making any predictions about where the discipline is heading? “I think that there were, and there still are, many industrial processes that have been developed serendipitously, perfected by just trying things and seeing what worked. But, we now have the opportunity to go back and use the fundamental knowledge that we now have about what is going on to figure out definitively how these processes work and what can be done to make them work better.”

Which all adds up to Bulkin’s belief that we are now equipped with the knowledge and experience to effect a step-change in the efficiency “of many chemical industrial processes. Through good practice, engineering and accumulated knowledge, we can start to understand what’s really going on in those big reactors, vessels and pipes. Which means that there are possibilities for great improvements.”

‘Solving Chemistry: A Scientist’s Journey’ by Bernard J Bulkin is published by Whitefox, £14.99


Chemistry finds new directions

Today, as a glance at the news magazines shows, the great majority of scientific develop­ments being discussed are about the applications rather than fundamentals of chemistry. For example, the 20 featured speakers at the American Chemical Society national meeting in San Francisco in April 2017 included ten that are applications to biology, genetics or medicine, five in materials science or engineering, and two related to energy and the environment. Of the remaining three, one was about industry-​academia collaboration, one about imaging of catalysts and one about mass spectrometry.

That is fine, and the turning of the chemistry enterprise towards undertaking the difficult problems of other disciplines and away from the fundamentals of chemistry is a productive use of the centuries of accumulated knowledge. But it is not new fundamental chemistry. The possibility of a branch of science being completed in this way is something that was never contemplated, and I believe is largely unrecognised for chemistry today.

I played a small role in this process of understanding basic chemistry. But the things I worked on are illustrative of what happened between 1950 and 2000. In my first research problem, as an undergraduate, I studied the structure of a molecule. For my PhD thesis I worked out the details of a particular chemical reaction. As a professor I studied how liquids behaved. Then as an industrial scientist, I studied how to improve certain basic industrial processes, how to deal with environmental problems, and contributed to the development of techniques used to address some of these problems. Multiply what I did by several thousand and you have the collective story of chemistry in those years.

Edited extract from ‘Solving Chemistry’ by Bernard J Bulkin, with permission

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