Kenneth Wade - Chancellor’s Medal Oration

7th March 2012 Ken Wade was born and raised in Sleaford, a small market town on the edge of the Lincolnshire fens. Student, postdoctoral and teaching spells in Nottingham, Cambridge, Cornell and Derby preceded his appointment to a lectureship here in 1961. There were then few students and limited resources; filter papers were washed and reused, parts of science Departments were housed in sheds where the Early Learning Centre now stands, and lecturers had to provide their own chalk. However, science at Durham was poised for development following the loss of King’s College, Newcastle as a separate university. Ken and I have benefited from that development throughout our careers, during which we have interacted frequently and profitably, sharing a taste for wry humour, in our later years as neighbours on the corridor leading to the Dean’s Sanctuary, an area of the Chemistry Department commonly known as “death row”.

Ken is an imaginative and inventive chemist who has produced many pieces of influential research; since Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web you can easily find enough references to his papers and books to slay an ox. So instead of a catalogue of achievements I’ll try to give some flavour of the man who, in Who’s Who, records his recreations as a) musing, b) musing c) walking (his puns are usually even worse than that).

An early interest was in highly reactive compounds of boron and hydrogen, then regarded as contravening the bonding rules we were taught in school. Before he came to Durham, Ken was required to study them as potential rocket fuels (the alternative was to become a squaddie on national service). The space race in the 1950s and 1960s saw the USA and USSR invest millions of dollars and roubles in boron hydride research, and the UK responded characteristically by providing £1200 to support Ken for two years at Cambridge looking for a British rocket fuel. He failed, but it rankled, so he later looked for ways to make amends.

The true origins of the famous Wade’s Rules are not widely known, but stem from his frustration trying to write books about and teach a subject he didn’t fully understand. Berners-Lee had not invented the web so Ken resorted to that Victorian Technology known as the Library and used skills inculcated in infant school; namely, reading, counting and thinking. Many of us regret the disappearance of these ancient skills.

Newton was another sharp lad from Lincolnshire who said “we folks from the fens can see a long way because it’s flat and there’s nowt to block the view” but, as Auden puts it, “the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living” and Newton’s home-spun philosophy got modified; probably the oft repeated “shoulders of giants” bit was a romantic decoration of a truism. Ken also has this son of the flat lands attribute of seeing far and clearly. So after a lot of musing he produced one of those pieces of imagination and insight which digest a vast array of data and provide a detailed explanation for why that data takes the form it does. It turns out that certain of the chemist’s Lego blocks can combine to make large apparently heretical molecular clusters with very specific sizes and shapes. These are beautifully explained by Wade’s Rules, which unify a vast amount of data, have both explanatory and predictive value, and make nice subjects for exam question problems. They are appreciated worldwide, bringing great kudos to Ken and the University.

Ken has been recognized by the award of many prizes, lectureships, visiting professorships and in 1989 election to the Royal Society. He has done lots of jobs for science (nationally and internationally), for scholarship, for students, for colleagues and for the University. He has shouldered his share of administrative duties and was one of a handful of colleagues who managed the transformation of Durham Chemistry from a backwater to one of the top UK Departments (in the parlance of the day, to RAE 5*). He achieves his effects by quiet persuasion and confidence building and is a much loved mentor for students and colleagues alike.

His merits were recognized by the University who gave him a Chair in 1983. After an enormously fruitful half-century in Durham, still quite sharp and no less amusing, he has gone to live in the Cotswolds, but keen to remain a Durham chemist for some time yet.

It is, therefore, my great pleasure to present Kenneth Wade to receive the Chancellor’s Medal.

hod/ken_wade_chancellors_medal.txt · Last modified: 2016/05/26 14:32 (external edit)
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