Behind every bestselling novelist is a woman with a degree in heterogeneous catalysis. Or there ought to be. Dr Mary Archer reviews her career in conversation with Maxton Walker.
Attempting to contact Mary Archer for an interview, I was greeted by a whispered voice on the other end of the phone. ‘Good Morning, Dr Archer‘s office‘. Having arranged the desired interview, I was given an explanation for the secretary’s hushed tones. ‘I‘m sorry for speaking so quietly, but Mr Archer’s writing just now and I’m trying not to disturb him.‘
The media has a problem
considering Dr Mary Archer in isolation from her husband. This is unfortunate, because despite being famed as Jeffrey Archer’s wife, Mary Archer carved herself a prestigious career in chemistry, and is a world authority on solar power. In terms of achievement this is easily as impressive as any of her husbands literary or business forays.
Like many scientists she was attracted to the call of the test-tube from an early age although she seemed a little surprised at being asked how she first got interested in science.
‘Gosh! I suppose the first time that I really became interested in the natural world was when I was in primary school in Surrey. They had this marvellous little room called the ‘discovery room’ which was full of a miscellaneous collection of curiosities, shells, and minerals. It wasn’t until secondary school that I actually started to have biology, chemistry and physics lessons, and I then moved into chemistry because it had these exciting reactions that went snap, crackle and pop.’
This was at a time when chemistry was not seen as a seemly subject for women to study, (unlike today for example when more than halfof some undergraduate years in Edinburgh University are female).Had she ever encountered any sexism or prejudice?
‘I never really felt that science was something I shouldn’t do, but I was very lucky in that I didn’t come across any sexism at university. It wasn’t until I was a Don at Oxford that I met it; then people would walk into my office and say, “Well, where’s Dr Archer, then?" ’
After completing her degree she
then did a degree on heterogeneous
catalysis, a branch of the study of
using compounds to increase the speed and efficiency ofcertain chemical reactions and moved on to post-doctoral research.
'After my PhD I went on to study electrochemistry. I became involved in solar energy after that when I went to the Royal Institution where Sir George Porter was the director, with whom I very much wanted to work. There I found a lot ofinteresting papers about ten years old, including some material on solar rechargeable batteries. I then got on to the subject of photo-electric chemistry which is now very well established, and that got me into solar energy which is still slightly Iabotarory based but is still a very exciting field to be in.‘
However in recent years she has made a major career shift. In 1986 she gave up full-time teaching and has been involved in a more public role. She is a director of Anglia television, but one of her main concerns at the moment is the National Energy Foundation, based in Milton Keynes where, according to its publicity brochure, she is the ‘chairman‘ ofthe board oftrustees. This was set up to investigate responses to the dwindling resources on the planet.
‘The Foundation is looking at areas such as energy efficient dwellings and factories which we feel have some great commercial possibilities. We will also have a major museum — no that‘s such a terrible word — exhibition about energy.‘
Was this prompted by environmental concerns? ‘I think that energy and the environment draw ever closer in the minds of the public, and also in the minds of
scientists who work on one or the other. Gone are the days when we can use the atmosphere and oceans as dustbins and we will make it our business to explain alternative energy to people as part of the Energy Experience, which is something that people are very interested in at the moment.’
Many scientists are now telling the government that it is time to hit the panic button when we look at the so-called ’brain drain’ coupled with the predicted shortage of scientists in the next twenty years or so. Does she think that enough is being done to encourage people, especially women into the field?
‘I think that the important thing is that women should not be specifically discouraged from entering science, which often happens, not through deliberate action but simply through culture in the home and in schools. Perhaps the most difficult area is the physical side ofchemistry and also engineering which are very abstract and inhuman. Hopefully, though, the work-place nursery tax allowance should help to redress some of the balance.‘
Of course she herself achieved the superwoman challenge by having a family and a successful professional career. How has she coped?
‘I have two boys, and first of all they had a nanny. She was very good. Had that not worked out, then perhaps I might have needed to slow down.‘ She pauses for thought. ‘I wouldn‘t have had it any other way, but sometimes you really do need some stamina!’
Dr Mary A rcher ofﬁcially opened the Science Festival with a talk entitled I “Women in Science’ on 1 April.
STALKS 0N EYES
Euclid, the Greek geometry man lrom 300 BC Alexandria, postulated that vision is due to invisible linger-like rods reaching out irom the eye to touch
what we see. This was iine ior explaining how vision deteriorated with distance: the rods projecting irom the eye had more oi a chance at touching the coin at your test than the coin halt a mile away where the rods were more widely spaced. The theory iell ilat when it was realised that it also meant that on opening your eyes you would see things close-to iirst; even it the rods shot out as last as a diving hawk you might have to wait halt an hour beiore they reached and touched Mount Olympus on the horizon. Bringing theories about sight up to date are the two well-known popularlsers oi science John Taylor and Rocbard Gregory. John Taylor (an
old hand at the Royal Institution and its Christmas shows) will give the iirst at two talking demonstrations. His subject is ‘Colours’ (7 April, see listings) — how do we see them, where do they come irom? Why are certain magentas and browns not in the rainbow? Good instructive stuff that will serve as a useiul introduction and complement to Richard Gregory’s show that follows.
Gregory’s exposition, entitled ‘Seeing Machines' (9 April, see listings), will be more concerned with the mind, its perceptions and illusions. Why did Galileo insist that Saturn had ears not rings? Could Modigliani draw anything other than bean-pole iigures?
To illustrate the latest in our mimicking oi natural vision there will be video tape at Freddy the Robot from the Edinburgh Artliicial Intelligence Unit (started by Gregory) who can recognise and assemble car parts. Gosh! Richard Gregory’s eiiorts on behali oi science are nothing it not imaginative. He founded the Bristol Exploratory, a hands-on science park where people oi all ages can play and learn. He also sits on a panel dedicated to the promotion at scientllic role-models by such devices as the inclusions in TV soaps oi glamorous boilins. His periormance should be one oi the Festival’s highlights. (Patrick Vidaud)
70 The List 6- 19 April 1990