The winner of the 2020 Theophilius Redwood Award, which is given by the Royal Society of Chemistry to a leading analytical chemistry scientist who is also an outstanding communicator, Richard Brown has worked for NPL since completing his PhD studies at Imperial College London.
Richard is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Fellow of the Institute of Measurement and Control, a Chartered Chemist, Chartered Environmentalist and Chartered Scientist, and holder of the European Chemist designation.
I’m of course delighted with my latest award particularly as it has a lecture series attached to it, which is very appropriate for the topic as it gives me the chance to take the information to a wider audience. All the material concentrates on educating people about measurement units and how they would change, so actually the lectures are a good chance to take this work forward.
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The Theophilius Redwood Award is the latest in a series of RSC awards Richard has received since joining the RSC while an undergraduate.
“My student membership was almost free at the time and because I was doing a pure chemistry degree it was the obvious professional body for me to join."
Accurate measurement is something that everyone thinks they do but according to Richard this is not the case.
Most scientists think they make accurate measurements – of course they do! – but they very rarely prove that they do. In order to make accurate measurements you have to clearly link to your measurements to stable references and generally these are measurement units – and this is what NPL is all about. Agreeing the definitions of measurement units with our international partners and then maintaining the national standards for these is key to what we do.
Recently, some of the units have been redefined and probably the highest profile one was the kilogram. This unit moved away from being a unique physical artefact that was held on the outskirts of Paris and became defined by an experiment that could be conducted at any national metrology institute around the world. At the same time the mole (the unit of chemistry) was redefined and Richard lead the team at NPL working on this project. Now the mole probably is closer to how chemists understand it, as it has moved away from being defined via a fixed mass of Carbon-12 to be instead a fixed number of elementary entities – the Avogadro number.
It is very important for chemists to understand what underpins the accuracy and stability of their measurements. The final slide in my lecture on this topic explains that the redefinition of these units futureproofs our measurement system so it can deal with any technologies that arise in the future.
"This means that any new technologies can be translated directly into improvements in measurement and therefore improvements in accuracy leading to faster, more efficient progress in science – and we all know how important that is - just look at Covid-19.”