For my research advisor I chose Professor Rochow in inorganic chemistry. . .Rochow had joined Harvard some years earlier after a distinguished research career in organosilicon chemistry at the General Electric Co. Research Laboratory in Schenectady, NY. He had ongoing research projects in a number of fields (organic and inorganic silicon chemistry, organotin chemistry, broad-line NMR spectroscopy), but what intrigued me was his proposal to do research in fluorine chemistry. I had become interested in organofluorine chemistry at UB, where I had done a literature project on that subject. Rochow was pleased to hear of my interest and said, “Well, if you want to do something in fluorine chemistry, first we’ll have to build an electrolytic fluorine cell.” After a session in the library reading about the construction and operation of fluorine cells, I returned to his office and asked, “What else have you got?”
A wise move. This goes in the same collection as Matt Meselson’s story about how his own advisor, Linus Pauling, wanted to put him on a tellurium project. Given a choice between making my own fluorine and trying to crystallize tellurium compounds, I think I’d choose. . .well, hold on a minute. . .truck driving school? Cleaning out grease traps? As a character in the old Pogo strip put it once, “No! I can always rob graves!”. If there were truly no other choice, I suppose I’d take my chances with the tellurium, which might well poison me a bit or make me a social pariah, but would not be actively coming to kill me every second I was in the lab (like the fluorine would be).
Fortunately, I’ve never been faced with an offer to take on a project like either of these. Anyone who has, though, please feel free to share your own experience in the comments. And be sure to tell us whether you took the horrible thing on, or decided that something else suddenly looked a lot more interesting. . .