My Best Teacher;Interview;Mary Archer

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
Lord Porter was director of the Royal Institution when I was there as a post-doc researcher. He was Sir George then, and was literally and metaphorically the resident genius. He'd recently been awarded the Nobel Prize and was also the Fullerian professor of chemistry.

I'd heard him give a lunchtime lecture at the Royal Institution and was tremendously impressed. I wrote to him asking if I could work for him. I'd done my undergraduate chemistry at Oxford, my PhD at Imperial College and my first post-doc at Oxford, and Jeffrey and I wanted to move back to London. I was about 28 then and George was in his fifties. He was an avuncular figure, not at all remote, and we were soon on first-name terms. I worked in the research labs at the Royal Institution every day for four years. As a post-doc, of course, I worked with a reasonable degree of independence, although George was always there when he was needed and he had a sacred research day - with which nothing was allowed to interfere - when he would come round and visit all the research labs.

He and his wife, Stella, were extremely kind and approachable, and George had that invaluable gift of knowing when to push you on a little and when to stop and sympathise. We all had great respect for him because he had tremendous green fingers chemically. He sensed what was going on rather than needing to sit down with paper and pencil and try to figure it all out deductively.

His particular strength as a teacher was lecturing. The Royal Institution had a long tradition of Friday evening discourses and Christmas lectures - and they were always packed. He really lived up to the tradition of the place as the great repertory theatre of British science. It was as a result of these lectures that I became interested in science more broadly than my own subject and began to appreciate how powerful the interactions between different scientific disciplines are, and to get interested in telling a scientific story in plain English. George was, and is, a good communicator with a tremendous fund of common sense and humanity.

He told stories of the work he did with Ronald Norrish at Cambridge that got them the Nobel Prize, and of how they developed their technique for flash photolysis in the basement of an old chemistry lab full of enormous capacitors which would go off spontaneously with a deafening bang.

He was a very positive person - I always felt better having talked to George. He was good if things were going wrong, always patient and he had good ideas. He was enormously kind, too. I already had my eldest child, Will, and when I had Jamie, he and Stella sent me a telegram saying: "Any boy born with so much laboratory experience must become a scientist". And Jamie did read chemistry at Oxford.

At the time Jeffrey had his big financial disaster, George was supportive in an unobtrusive way. That was the problem that turned into the opportunity because it pushed me into going for a job at Cambridge. I got my fellowship at Newnham in 1976, and George and I remained friends. When he left the Royal Institution he went to be president of the Royal Society, which is the grandest thing a scientist can do in this country. Afterwards, and this is so characteristic and endearing, he went back almost literally to the bench and founded the Centre for Photo-molecular Sciences at Imperial College.

Many grand old men of science understandably rest on their laurels, but he has chosen not to do so. He has kept on at express-train pace for years. He is also a loyal and regular attender at the House of Lords, so we meet there sometimes now.

I chair the National Energy Foundation, of which he is the president, and I have a visiting chair at Imperial College. George changed my mind set from being a narrow and precise academic scientist into somebody who, I hope, is reasonably rigorous in her subject, but became interested in the popular exposition of science. I owe a lot to George and the Royal Institution.

Dr Mary Archer is a bye-fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and of the Royal Society of Arts and a visiting professor at Imperial College, London. She was born and brought up in Surrey and educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College and Oxford University. She is married to the novelist peer, former MP and would-be mayor of London, Jeffrey Archer. They have two sons, William and James.She was talking to Pamela Coleman

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