Chemical World

I unhem creation a little, to work out the stitch

(Vincent O’Sullivan, 2006 from the anthology ‘Are Angels OK?)

So wrote poet Vincent O’Sullivan regarding Marie Curie’s work on radiation 100 years ago. Chemists unravel and unpick our world down to its simplest form in order to comprehend its mysteries; society bears the consequences that arise.

In 1911, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a hundred years on we celebrate the contribution of chemistry to the well-being of mankind. 

2011 Judges Comments

The judge for 2011 was Jo Randerson, a Wellington-based writer, theatre maker and cross media artist.

“There was a clear thematic to this year’s fiction entries, and it stems from the evocative terminology which colours the world of chemistry. Reactions, bonds, lone pairs – many of the stories were based around relationships, which is totally in keeping with the chemist’s theme. How does this element relate to that one? Does it attract, repel, share electrons or fall into a stable or unstable structure? It was a stable structure that I looked for amongst the contenders for the prize. There were some lovely ideas and concepts in the shortlist, but with short fiction we need to feel a well-shaped ride. The winning entry took a direct approach by setting itself right in the heart of Curie’s world, and impressed with its simplicity and poetry. It took me to a new world which is now a permanent part of my consciousness.”

“As for the non-fiction, again there were some strong entries. Above all, I sought a cohesive argument and writing that flowed easily from idea to idea, as well as thorough and notated research. The winning essay has the clearest and most interesting argument – that the terms ‘natural’ and ‘chemical’ have become un-necessarily polarised. It’s a relevant and timely thesis to consider, it speaks to the world we are familiar with, it is a defender of chemistry. The writing is strongly voiced and conveys its points easily and convincingly.

“I would like to thank the Royal Society for asking me to judge this competition, and to acknowledge all the entries: it was an honour and joy to read them.”

Fiction Winner

Bridget StockerRadium – A Love Story (PDF, 167 kB)
Bridget L. Stocker

Writing has always been a keen interest of Bridget’s but, with the demands of university study,  it was not something she took seriously until moving to Switzerland following the completion of her Ph.D. (Chemistry) in 2004.

Whilst a post-doctoral fellow at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich), Bridget did not buy a television or install a phone, and made the most of her quiet evenings alone at home to begin writing a novel. What started as a hobby became more serious when she returned to New Zealand and, in 2008, was accepted into the VUW Iowa creative writing workshop (fiction stream). Bridget was awarded a Creative New Zealand Mentor fellowship with Barbara Else (2008-2009), and was then taken on board by Chris and Barbara Else of the TFS literacy agency. She has recently completed her first novel.


Monsieur’s Guillot, Goldschmidt and Desgranges left the institute just after eight, and for this, I am pleased. I watched from my window as they wheeled their bicycles across the courtyard and along the cobblestone path that cuts through the trees. Of course, I cannot be sure that it was them – what with my eyes, and the fuzzy peach light that washes over Paris in the evening – I cannot be sure of much that goes on outside; though I pretend to know. I do not admit to the failings of my body. Like the spectral lines that I have the students so thoroughly explain, the marks of the atoms upon the photographic plate described with so much detail that I capture them in my mind before I view the plate itself, I see everything with clarity. The soft stone hues of the Parisian apartments, the wrought iron balconies, the distant Eiffel Tower, arching into a sky smudged grey with the beginnings of the night – I see these things with as much certainty as if it were thirty-five years ago and I was standing in the old laboratory on Rue Lhomond with my Pierre looking out over the city.

I put down my pen and shuffle the manuscript on my desk. My movements are clumsy and awkward and the papers slip from my fingers and fan themselves across the polished oak tabletop. ‘Radioactivity. M. Curie.’ I place the cover sheet on top where it should be and make a tidy stack. I am too tired to continue and my eyes too sore – and you know why. Slipping away from my desk, I leave my office and walk down the corridor. My charcoal dress, which is a practical colour for experimental work, brushes along the walls.

Non-fiction Winner

Joanna Wojnar100% Chemical Free (PDF, 209 kB)
Joanna Wojnar

Joanna is originally from Poland, but her family emigrated to New Zealand when she was a small child.

She is a PhD chemist, having obtained her degrees from Victoria University of Wellington, most recently a doctorate under the supervision of Assoc. Prof. Peter Northcote in 2008.

Since then, she has done a postdoc with Prof. Stephen Kent at the University of Chicago, and then returned to New Zealand to take up a position with Prof. Margaret Brimble at the University of Auckland. She is currently working on the synthesis of labelled antifreeze glycopeptide probes for the investigation of how antifreeze glycopeptides trail from the gut to the blood of the Antarctic notothenioid fish, and how these fish remove circulating ice.


Chemistry is “concerned with the substances of which matter is composed, the investigation of their properties and reactions, and the use of such reactions to form new substances”, while a chemical is “a distinct substance or compound,” and so by its very definition encompasses everything in the world, including ourselves.  The phrase chemical-free is therefore not just misleading, but simply ridiculous, yet many people, who now equate chemical with toxic, actively seek out chemical-free products. This leads to a proliferation of goods that proudly advertise being chemical-free, from the chemical-free Miracle Gro fertilizer (never mind that it contains phosphorus pentoxide and potassium oxide among other ingredients),through the chemical-free (but mineral!) powder make-up, even including –incredibly – a chemical-free chemistry set! 

While these examples may be excused as pandering to the public at large who misunderstand the words chemistry and chemical, a more recent example is more worrisome still.  The prestigious journal Science, presumably aimed at educated scientists, describes a fully “chemical-free” process in their short News section, as relating to the production of fibres from milk proteins.  The same article that mentions casein biopolymers, also states: “the entire production process uses no chemicals or pesticides.”  When exactly did chemistry become synonymous with poison, and chemical with toxic?

Past winning entries

We are celebrating the competition with an e-book.

SHIFT 2011 (PDF) (PDF, 1.4 MB)

SHIFT epub (2MB)

SHIFT .mobi (280k)


Please forward any questions to or 04 470 5781

The New Zealand Listener and the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington are proud to support the 2011 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing.