Pestana Alex

Publié le lundi  7 septembre 2009
Mis à jour le jeudi  14 mars 2013 à 18h09min
par  Boivin Jean
popularité : 17%

Alex Pestana

Alex Pestana a eu la gentillesse de nous faire partager des extraits de son journal "intime" retraçant son post-doc chez Sir Derek qui ne fut pas toujours une partie de plaisir mais fut néanmoins riche d’enseignements et une véritable leçon de vie. J. Boivin

JPEG - 135.1 ko
With fellow Bartonians in the Lab at Gif - Pascal Langlois, Begonia, Pascale Lecoupanec, Alex Pestana, X, Neerja Bhatnagar (from left to right)

The Terrifying Meetings of Monsieur Derek Barton

“That which does not kill me makes me stronger” - Friedrich Nietzsche

From The New Scientist, 17 December 1981

“… A Nobel laureate and veteran of 41 years’ outstanding research, Barton now lives in France, directing the Centre National de la Recherche Scientific at Gif-sur-Yvette. Recently, he came to London to be honoured by the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain with the Hanbury Memorial Medal and to deliver the annual lecture.

His lecture consisted of a philosophical discourse on the art of organic synthesis… Barton’s fame and reputation attracted young and old chemists to his lecture… He had something to say for everyone. Younger listeners were reminded on several occasions that “hard work is the minimum requirement ; intelligence, motivation and a critical spirit… are also necessary.” He is reputed to drive his students hard and he still prides himself on working harder than them. Uneasy professorial laughter greeted this statement. In fact, the better the student the harder he drives them. This has led to a sprinkling of highly energetic and successful research groups around the world. Presumably those who can’t stand the heat soon get out of Sir Derek’s kitchen.”

The Terrifying Meetings of Monsieur Barton

Preamble : My arrival at Gif-sur-Yvette, France
I arrived as a young researcher on a cold day at the laboratories of the ICSN at Gif-sur-Yvette to do my postdoctoral studies with Nobel-prize winner Sir Derek Barton.1 The days were short, dark, and cold, so cold. Chilling winds cut through my inadequate Southern wear ; snow melted in my shoes and my feet froze in them. This was the prize I had secured, getting the nod from around thirty applicants from around the world for the post.2

It was nonetheless with a confident, jaunty air that I walked into the ICSN on a cold winter’s morning. No-one could have been more positive. I was on the first rung of a ladder of a career in international scientific research. Madam Fan, Monsieur Barton’s secretary, as he was called in France, introduced me to Dr. Jean Boivin, who showed me around the institute and then to my laboratory. Jean was one of three team leaders – called ‘lieutenants’ in the industry - of around 8-10 researchers each. The lieutenants didn’t touch an apparatus ; they were the experienced thinkers of the team who concentrated on following the literature and generating ideas on paper for us to implement. There was a fourth team in the USA. We, the researchers, the PhD’s and post-docs were the hands and fodder of the research world, the willingly exploited. Jean showed me to my workbench. It was exiguous compared to my spacious laboratory in Cape Town, amounting to two metres of running bench space. But space was at a premium for everyone. “You are also to have a laboratory at the University of Paris-Orsay, more spacious, where the electro-chemistry unit is. I shall be taking you there later today”, said Jean.

I looked around at my colleagues to whom I was about to be introduced. A forbidding disquietude suffused the laboratories. Everyone scurried, everyone worked in a tense haste. Around a third or so were French ; the rest came from all over. Two Pascal’s ; Pascal and Pascale Le Coupanec. Begonia from Barcelona. Neerja and Ravi from India. A young Germanic woman, taciturn and strong, who was to be raped close to the institute a few months later but who went straight back to the lab to get over it, to forget, no-one knew, but she was to tell me months later, these type of secrets don’t remain long with people. A strong, lean, hard-as-nails Irishman who was a champion rower and who once watched a soccer world cup game in my room and passed out on my bed in Paris, drunk. As of a good night, he could down a bottle of whisky just like that. There was Dominique, an arrogant Frenchman who never ceased to rub in that despite my European origins, I came from un pays sous-développé (an under-developed country). There was Martial, reserved and correct. There was Jamal, a bearded Moroccan, and an Austrian woman. Not everyone worked for Barton, most researchers belonged to other teams. We who worked for Barton basked in a palpable aura. One or two non-team members sneered when they heard I was from Afrique du Sud and asked whether I practiced apartheid, most were decent. Non-team members I interacted with included a tall handsome Spaniard, Cristobal, who would trouble me for elucidation of advanced English texts on late nights before we would leave the lab, as would a gentle Brazilian guy. There was a red-haired Englishman with strange table manners who would eat peas with the convex side of his fork in the canteen, a practice roundly commented on by continentals. There was Stanislaw, a Pole who became a friend and with whom I would visit the morbid concentration camp at Lublin in the snow that Christmas. There were Asians, others, and adding dissonance to this cultural kaleidoscope, there would now also be me, a Madeiran South African.

At Orsay I worked in a lab with among others Aurore Gref from Rumania, Nubar Ozbalik, an Armenian Turk and Claude, a French communist who read L’Humanité every day. They worked for Gilbert Balavoine, a dapper professor who I felt could model clothes for Givenchy or Dior. A tennis-playing researcher around my age wrote up his Ph.D. in a corner opposite me in our bureau. I was to find out that he lodged in a room with a separate entrance in the same large house as I did for my first two months in Orsay and knew it, the dear, but said nothing. I was, however, good enough for English translations. He also refused, or was incapable, whatever, of sleeping with his girlfriend ; she told me that after they broke up, he would just lie there. That’s the exact unforgiveable behaviour you’d expect from a guy who lives in a room just below a new colleague and doesn’t tell him when he knows he needs the company. There was professor Kagan, who would also avail himself of my English to translate one or two of his publications. My ironic worth to the French was my command of English.3 Kagan had a beautiful young, blonde, blue-eyed female master’s student who for a month or three would walk around Paris with me on Sundays and would watch me play at Squash Montparnasse, but I was taken. Paris ! Paris my city ! Where I breathed in life away from the laboratories ! And such and so ; the faces come flooding into my vision a quarter of a century later, the names of which escape me, all that remains is nationalities, nationalities, nationalities that would collectively learn more English in the weekly French classes sponsored by the Institute than they would French, they told me. Only a diversity of nationalities remains to me, and faces, faces which I still see with a troubling clarity, every one of them, to this very day.

First Meeting with Sir Derek

I was taken to be introduced to Sir Derek Barton on my second day. It was an overwhelming experience. I entered the most enormous office on the top floor of the institute. Awards from all over the world hung from the walls. You name the award, it was there.4.5 You stood in awe. To achieve this Monsieur Barton worked all his waking hours. I looked at the great man who was to be my boss for the next year-and-a-bit. At an outsized desk sat a robust, white-haired, unsmiling 68-year old man. I was 25. This was the august persona, this was the legend. He looked straight at me and with an imperceptible bow of the head said “Good morning, Dr. Pestana” with a specific Englishness. Dr. Pestana. How laughable, given the chasm between us. The one had achieved everything, the other, nothing. I’m not sure that there was even any irony in this. “Please, it’s Alex, Sir Derek…” He accepted this with a firm nod and then got straight down to business. He handed me a few chemistry papers. A project had been outlined for me. I was to work on the Gif System for the selective oxidation of hydrocarbons, the electrochemical aspects. My immediate future had been mapped out for me. I then committed one of the classically stupid things in my life. I asked him if there wasn’t a synthesis project available, for I loved synthesis. My question stopped Barton in his tracks. This showed I had zero social intelligence, had disregard for the work that had been assigned to me and that I was unappreciative to boot. He told me with suppressed irritation that I could speak to Monsieur Langlois and others in the Institute if I wanted to do synthesis, there was no such project available in his teams. Did I have any other questions ? No ? Dismissed. With that, from the outset, I sensed I had gotten on the wrong side of Professor Barton. I had made it hard for myself.

I trudged back to the lab with Jean, head drooping. I looked around. Everyone worked, everyone worked insanely, with deliberation, in cold tension. We worked up to twelve hours a day, more before meeting days.

The Meetings

The meetings. We lived in terror of them. Madame Fan would come down to write their dates on a board in the tea corner from which they would scream at us. A collective psychosis surrounded the meetings. Every ten days or so, the team leaders and researchers would climb a set of stairs and queue outside Barton’s office to attend the meetings. The ostensible purpose of the meetings was to formally present our findings to the team and the great man. The real purpose of the meetings was to sustain pressure and to sow unease, to keep us working like the fervent deranged. We would march in single file into his office, dead quiet and as taut as fish gut, and would sit on chairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of his desk. Each researcher presented his work in turn on a board before a hawk-eyed Monsieur Barton. These were shattering times. We researchers often did not know what others in the team were doing and were sworn to secrecy about our work. If anyone asked what I did, I was to say that I oxidized, that was it.

In the laboratory, we all drank tea, no-one drank coffee. We were jittery enough. Before the meetings you could smell the fear. Tea times, held in a small corner just off one of the laboratories, were little rituals of polite reinforcement, nervous tremors before the meetings and short-lived relief afterwards, for in ten days’ time the next meeting would be upon us. The meetings, what persistence they had ! They rained upon us like deafening drum beats ! At tea times - short snatches of life gripped from the sweat trenches - we laughed nervously and consoled one another in a silly ways. I remember my replies to people’s mumblings about the meetings before having attended my first one. I was laughably naïve. “What’s the problem ?” I would ask. “You work hard, you summarise it, you present, that’s it. What can Barton do ? Kill you ?” They just shook their heads. I clearly hadn’t the foggiest idea.

Before my first meeting, Pascale suddenly had a wobbly about it. I saw it. She walked in, saw the freshly written meeting date on the board, froze, changed complexion and then deflated with an “Ah non !...” and scurried off. I was uneasily relaxed at my first meeting, a mere bystander in the brooding gloom. Our team filed up the stairs outside Monsieur Barton’s office, all ten of us. It fell to Pascale to knock on his door. Pascale, a petite young woman from Bretagne or Picardie I think, in the flower of her youth and a delight in normal circumstances, was red and flustered. She held up her fist to knock, but at the last minute her courage failed her, she emitted a cry, turned her face, exhaled her pent-up anxiety and fled down the stairs. “Je ne peux pas !” (I cannot !). Tension rippled down the line. The moment was too big, Barton’s gravitas too great, the gulf between the judge and the about-to-be-judged too wide. Suddenly I too felt tense. I looked Dominique straight in the eye. He was next in line. In another of my insane moments I dug my fingers into his neck, first-aid style, into his jugular, to feel his heart-beat. It was hard and slow. “Ta main !” Remove your hands from me !” he cut back in a look that murdered. “Non, non”, said Jean, coming between us. “Allons !” he insisted, and with that knocked and opened the door to our abattoir.

Still, I was untouched by fear. Hard work didn’t scare me. I came from a family that worked crazily long hours every day of the year. I figured that if you worked hard and had done your work, it would be enough. You would sail through the meeting. I was wrong. You wouldn’t. In modern scientific research, like all else in life, luck plays a role. You don’t find the discovery, the discovery finds you. In my more fatalistic moments I would even say that the discovery chooses the precious few to whom it reveals itself, Thomas Edison’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration notwithstanding. What matters are results, not sweat, blood and tears ; those are taken for granted.

The time for me to present at a meeting came soon enough. I had done my work, I had my findings, not very encouraging, but there they were nonetheless. I put them on the board before Monsieur Barton and let them speak for themselves. “So ?” asked Barton. He was bemused and nonplussed. “So ?” “So what ?” he urged. I had not thought further. I was expected to say something but had nothing to say. Findings don’t speak, people do. Nerves welled up inside me. Everyone in the team averted their gaze in embarrassment. I stood there, in anxious shock. Barton went red. Nubar who had worked with me on the experiments sensed trouble and jumped to my rescue. He spoke rapidly if incoherently to save my skin. Barton no longer looked at me but at him. The fire went Nubar’s way. I was an inconsequential bystander in proceedings, ignored, standing there immobile as a robot or a reed, an afterthought that didn’t really matter. Nubar defended, placated and cajoled and set out how we were to attack the situation for the next meeting, ten days later. I left the meeting inwardly trembling. This was the dawning of my unease.

I worked myself to a standstill. The next meeting didn’t go much better for me, neither did the next. “So what ?” “What’s this ?” “What now ?” More irritation from Barton. “Enough from you thank you, next !” I didn’t know what was expected from me, despite Jean’s coaching. You get to know a problem very well when you grapple with it for twelve hours every day. But it seemed, in the eyes of Barton, that nothing I produced was good enough. The team tensed up when I presented. This was drip torture of a slow, deliberate kind, culminating in outbursts at the meetings. That I divided my time between Orsay and Gif didn’t help. I had the pressure of both laboratories and the benefits of neither.6,7

I came to live in fear of the meetings. That’s when the bad days started. The tossing and turning, the working under pressure, the anxiety, the not sleeping, the swollen red eyes. There were also the sudden pains in my stomach that would crunch me into a low crouch on my haunches.8 I even stopped enjoying to walk the streets of my beloved Paris. My world was tainted, besmirched by Barton’s meetings. They suffocated all joy out of life. Relations with Aurore, who had troubles of her own, worsened after Nubar left for Texas. Nubar had been a buffer between us. Soon after he left, Aurore simply stopped talking to me. The French have an idiomatic expression for this - faire la gueule. I forget the cause, but it had to do with a trivial linguistic misunderstanding, something like her claiming that the yield on an experiment was in the order of 3 to 4% which I took to mean 3 to 4 orders of magnitude higher than the low yields we had previously obtained and which I doubted.9 Things got tougher for me after that. I was heavily dependent on her for the electrochemical experiments and by extension for the meetings. April arrived in Paris, birdsong had returned to the parks, the snow had melted and the days were brighter, but for me it was night.

I couldn’t take it anymore. My work situation was bad, results were not forthcoming and each meeting was a crucifixion. Then, one fine spring day, I decided I had had enough. Sometimes, one fails in life. I would give up. But to fail here would be a demotion akin to death in the scientific world. One would lose face, prestige. And I would have to face myself in the mirror for the rest of my life afterwards. I weighed this all up and one fine morning it simply didn’t matter anymore. I phoned my professor in Cape Town and told him I was thinking of quitting. He was very supportive, but told me to tie a knot in my belt and hang on. I decided to give it one last bash and if that didn’t work, I would leave.

Around then, one of those quirks of fate that change the course of matters occurred. One Saturday I went into the laboratory at Gif to work-up an experiment.10 I was alone in the labs apart from one or two people at five in the afternoon, when none other than Monsieur Barton walked in, surreptitiously, almost startling me. He looked at me as if shocked, then blurted out uncharacteristically to me in French “Vous êtes ici ? Ça c’est très bien”, spun around and hastened out.11

From that moment his attitude towards me changed. He was more engaging, less rigid, gave me breathing space. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps he had witnessed for the first time the work ethic he expected from all but thought didn’t exist in me.12 In the strange unfolding of life, after that one or two things went my way ; the hard work paid off, we got meaningful results and matters started flowing from there. Monsieur Barton’s meetings became bearable, even humane.13 They also became slightly less frequent as he was busy moving laboratories to Texas A&M, his second job in retirement. My love for scientific enquiry returned.

I soldiered on in Gif and Orsay and managed to get my full publications with Sir Derek.14 I had hung on to succeed. When it was time for me to leave, Sir Derek showed genuine appreciation for my work and thanked me for my contribution. He asked where in the world I would like to work. I said England. He on the spot picked up the phone to an ex-student of his, a professor at Cambridge University, and arranged immediately for my second post-doc, for which I applied and was accepted.15 Such was the generosity and power of the man – I heard that 25% of organic chemistry professors in the UK were ex-students of his, a figure not remotely matched by anyone else.

There is no moral to my story. There is work and luck and attitude and awe and power. There is endurance, pain, hardship and being able to take it. The downside to applying so much pressure on people is that they don’t work optimally and buckle under it. Many give up, a even few cheat, for which there is no excuse. Jean told me that they once could not replicate a set of results obtained by a previous team member who had moved on to a post elsewhere. Barton phoned him and the man admitted to cheating. At that point Barton could have ended his career but did nothing. Forgiveness ? Hardly. Magnanimity ? Not to cheats. Coming face-to-face with the effects of his own pressure ? Perhaps.

Still, I would never have been able to forgive myself had I failed there ; it would have festered within me all my life. I toughened up quickly during that period. But visions of those bleak times still reverberate through me at times, like shudders from fundamental fault-lines in the undercurrents of my psyche.

A year and more passed. It was late Winter again in Paris. The snows were back, a cycle had turned. It was time for me to move on. The tyrannical meetings of Monsieur Barton were over.16, 17,18

Other tyrannies were to take root though, this time serious ones. That year, in England, a life-threatening health problem hospitalised me for a month and forced me into a year’s convalescence. I assessed my life and decided to give up organic chemistry for good. I would never be the research scientist I had aspired, and had so expertly been trained, to be.


Notes :

1. l’Institut de Chimie des Substances Naturelles - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Gif-sur Yvette, in the Vallée de Chevreuse. About 25km south of Paris. I lived in the 14th arrondissement of Paris and commuted daily by train to Gif. Website www.icsn.cnrs-gif.fr

2. Madam Fan, Barton’s personal assistant, told me so at the time. Recommendations by especially Professor Daneel Ferreira, who had worked with Barton at Imperial College ten years previously, and Professor Robin Giles undoubtedly helped secure it for me. Robin Giles always said he wanted to place his students with gentlemen, not bastards.

3. I love language and seem to transmit linguistic concepts passably well. People were quick to latch on to it and availed themselves of free tuition gladly given. Before I knew it I was swamped.

4. These include numerous honorary doctorates, industry and country awards. The Hofmann Chair of Organic Chemistry was created for him by Imperial College in 1970, and two years later, he was knighted in Britain and enrolled into the Legion d’Honneur as a chevalier (he became an officer in 1985). Nobel Prize. He was president of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (now the Royal Society of Chemistry) in 1973–1974. Editor-in-chief of Tetrahedron. Editor-in-chief of Comprehensive Organic Chemistry. Let me stop.

5. I heard one of Barton’s ex-students, a professor, say that Barton himself yielded in chemistry genius only to R.B. Woodward. At that level of genius, aspects of ego are forgivable. However, Woodward was one of those people who, as a blessing of nature, needed only three hours sleep a night. Barton needed six… and those three extra hours of chemistry a day add up to an advantage over a career. I need seven.

6. Work at Orsay involved the passing of electrical currents through hydrocarbon-solvent mixtures that produced intractable cruds which had to be painstakingly analysed. At Gif, I synthesized the chemical substrates that we oxidized electrochemically at Orsay.

7. For example, in the whole time I spent there, I only attended one of the weekly colloquiums by an external speaker at Gif, being too busy at Orsay. My general chemistry knowledge stagnated as a result. That I had no transport and partially walked, partially hitch-hiked between the two institutions did not help. I was the only of Sir Derek’s thirty or so researchers who had two labs during the time I was there.

8. In hindsight, these were early warnings of the growth of a serious disease.

9. I even blew up a distillation apparatus in Orsay because of her refusal to talk to me and not properly showing me how it operated. This caused tension in the labs. Claude et. al. were not impressed, and I fell further from favour.

10. Barton would take a customary stroll through the labs late on weekend days just to see who was there… after having worked all day in his office himself. On the Saturdays I would work, it would be at Orsay. Being based at Gif, Barton never visited the Orsay labs, so he never saw my weekend labours.

11. Translation : “You are here ? That is very good.” Barton always spoke English to me and I presented in English at the meetings. Otherwise I communicated with everyone in French at both Gif and Orsay.

12. Barton’s capacity for work was voracious as it was legendary. He drove everyone hard, but worked himself harder than anyone. In this respect he was fair. He would oftentimes be the first to switch on lights in the institute in the mornings and the last to switch them off in the evenings. He was known to work on Christmas day. His wife of course agreed to put up with this, up to a point. I heard that his first wife accepted she would see little of him, but insisted that they at least watch the BBC nine o’clock news together. The story goes that Barton would pretend to be watching the news, but would all the while be reading a publication he had smuggled in just out of sight of his wife... This ended in divorce.

Two published extracts about Barton’s work ethic.

“As young man, Barton had the reputation of being tough, probably because of his intense drive, his singularity of purpose, his individuality, and his determination where his work was concerned – and because he expected the same from those who worked with him. The drive and the energy are still there : How many people would leap from continent to continent to avoid (statutory) retirement ? But the realisation that not everyone can or will work at his level of intensity has softened the edges a bit. Loyal, supportive and appreciative are how those who know him describe him. Sir Derek is not known to mince his words nor to waste them.” - Jeffrey I. Seeman, Editor’s note, Profiles Pathways and Dreams, Some Recollections of Gap Jumping – Sir Derek H. R. Barton. American Chemical Society, Washington, DC, April 1991.

“I certainly knew that I would enjoy living in France, but I was not certain if I would quietly prepare for real retirement or not. As soon as I realised that everyone expected me to retire quietly, I started working very hard again. In the nearly ten years that I spent in Gif-sur-Yvette, I accomplished as much as I did in the decade from 1950 to 1960, which was my previous high point. One of the stimulants was that money and good students were not automatically available, as they had been at Imperial College.” Sir Derek Barton, Some Recollections of Gap Jumping, ibid, chapter on “Retirement”, p.87. (I selfishly hope there were a few exceptions to good students not being automatically available !).

13. Relations between Barton and me improved to the extent that I became party to bets he would occasionally take with his researchers on the outcome of a reaction. The bets were always at ten francs apiece, and were of course more about prestige and chemistry nous than the money. I won the only bet he took against me ! What I never got was the ultimate informal accolade Barton accorded his students. When Pascale Le Coupanec finally trapped an intermediate compound that eluded her for months and months, proving that the mechanism of a reaction occurred through radical processes, we were summoned into Barton’s office for a ceremonial champagne !

14. See e.g. Functionalisation of Saturated Hydrocarbons. Part X. A Comparative Study of Chemical and Electrochemical Processes (Gif and Gif-Orsay systems) in Pyridine, in Acetone and in Pyridine-co-Solvent mixtures. G. Balavoine, D.H.R. Barton, J. Boivin, A. Gref, P. Le Coupanec, N. Ozbalik, J.A.X. Pestana and H. Rivière Tetrahedron 1988, 44, 1091-1106 etc.

15. I was accepted for a post-doc at Cambridge, but alas Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher struck up a problem with the university dons and reduced their funding… I was informed in writing by the Cambridge professor a few weeks later that owing to funding restrictions he had to cut his budget that year and so could not take me on. I went to Bath instead where the professor had four scholarships ! I really enjoyed my time there.

16. The last time I saw Sir Derek Barton was in Cape Town in 1997, a year before his death. I attended his lecture at UCT and was invited to visit him at his hotel in Newlands. He generously gave me 30 minutes of his time. He also gave me a copy of his book “Recollections of Gap Jumping” which he signed and commended to me. I was touched (see attached picture). No longer being in science, I asked him a philosophical question in question time after his talk. How did his brilliant ideas come to him ? What was their genesis ? From whence this well of intuition and genius ? He replied something unmemorable, he did not know. Inspiration is transcendental.

17. Barton died in March 1998. These are extracts from Barton’s obituary in The Independent on Wednesday 25 March 1998 by his ex-student Professor William Motherwell :

“Derek Barton had a complex personality. The public persona presented in scientific meetings was of a rather forbidding figure, and his scientific rigour meant that he was always the first to ask probing questions after a lecture. Though he mellowed over the years, many of his colleagues were somewhat in awe of him, and found it hard to live up to his demanding standards, so that research discussions were often conducted on a polite and formal level.

In social gatherings, too, he was a little uncomfortable and keen to escape. To those who knew him well however, and with whom he could relax, an entirely different personality was revealed. At these times, he had a great sense of fun, loving to tell stories of people and places and revealing a surprisingly catholic range of interests in unsuspected areas such as literature and music. He was intensely proud of the world-wide family of his former colleagues and, as a ‘godfather’, he always wished to help them.

Barton liked to set himself new targets - and to meet them. One of these, made over ten years ago, was to publish 1,000 research papers before the age of 80, and in this, he surpassed his goal : a remarkable achievement from a remarkable man.”

18. From Encyclopaedia.com

“Barton saw himself as the ‘kingmaker’ of organic chemistry and he put considerable effort into making arrangements for the future of his best students. By 2005 these included the professors of organic chemistry at Cambridge (Steven Ley), University College London (Motherwell), Imperial College, London (Anthony Barrett), and Oxford (Sir Jack Baldwin).

The chemist Tony Barrett has noted (probably tongue-in-cheek) that many chemists considered Barton to be ‘aloof, demanding and taking pleasure in overwhelming any scientist he disagreed with,’ but that he personally found him to be ‘kind, considerate, supportive and generous.’ Certainly Barton’s perceived aloofness was mainly shyness. Barton kept a close watch on his students and liked to push them, but he was kind and generous in many different ways to those students who responded well to this pressure. As one of the ‘high priests’ of organic chemistry (to use Stork’s revealing phrase), Barton felt a moral obligation to maintain rigorous standards, and to prevent any possible sloppiness or fraud. He habitually asked any student claiming they had made a new compound to show him the crystals. There was always a robust discussion of the latest results in his group’s weekly meetings, and his researchers sometimes held back a piece of good news, to be used when there was nothing else positive to report.” (How cunning of them to manage the meetings thus ! So there were others, too, in awe of the meetings...)


Depuis cette époque, Alex s’est reconverti dans la "haute finance" et multiplie ses centres d’intérêt, parmi lesquels la philosophie, la pratique des langues (6-7...). Nous attendons avec impatience le récit de sa reconversion. J Boivin

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Sir Derek Barton in 1989
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Sir Derek Barton as I knew him
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Sir Derek’s best wishes for me in my new career 2

Investment Strategist
SANLAM INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT

Alex Pestana is an Investment Strategist at SIM. He has been in the fund management industry for over 17 years, during which time he worked as a quantitative analyst, an economist, a fixed interest portfolio manager and an investment strategist. He holds a Ph.D. in the sciences and M.Phil. degree in economics. He is currently tasked with investigating Investment opportunities in Africa for SIM.


25th Anniversary Booklet

• Twenty-five years of the UCT Philosophy Society (David Benatar)
• Why was the UCT Philosophy Society started ? (Zak van Straaten)
• In the Beginning (Augustine Shutte)
• A Memorable Meeting (Paul Taylor)
• An Interregnum (Alex Pestana)

A Memorable Meeting
Alex Pestana

Towards the middle of 1995 Dr. David Brooks, a member of the UCT Philosophy Department and then chairperson of the UCT Philosophy Society, forwarded a motion that members should become more closely involved with the running of the Society. This would have the dual purpose of both disburdening the Department from the Society’s day-to-day administration, as well as giving members a bigger say in the topics it wished to have discussed

So it was that in August of that year an election was held during which I was elected the first (and, to date, only) non-faculty chairperson. A monthly newsletter was circulated to members during the ensuing two years of my term as chairperson, and philosophical topics of interest were regularly requested from members for future discussion. These would be directed to the faculty members who would in turn source speakers.

A more streamlined system could be imagined. Non-faculty members, being at a remove from academic philosophy, are less informed of evolving topics in current philosophy. They are also at a remove from the traffic of philosophers who might be visiting Cape Town, making the spontaneous inclusion of a visiting speaker at short notice difficult.

Nonetheless, the system had its merits. A number of memorable lectures in applied philosophy were held, notably Prof. Johan Degenaar’s lecture on Exploring Film Images Creatively, as well as Wilhelm Verwoerd’s political philosophy lecture on Human Scale Development Theory as applied to South African politics of the past and as a tool utilised by the Truth and Reconciliation commission. These lectures, I should think, were given as a result of direct requests by members at meetings.

After two years it was time for me to move on, and the running of the society reverted to the Philosophy Department. Thus ended a most satisfying period during which I interacted broadly with professionals of all spheres with a deep interest, even passion for philosophy. I remember the discussion sessions – some of them heated – rather fondly, and always found them insightful and entertaining.

Dr Alex Pestana has a PhD in Chemistry. He subsequently obtained a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Economics and then an MPhil in Economics. He was chairman of the Philosophy Society from August 1995 until September 1997. He is currently an investment strategist at Sanlam Investment Management.

Sanlam Investment Management (SIM)

Building Wealth. Building Prospects. Building Lives.
A Truly South African Investment Manager

With R240 billion in assets under management at the end of 2008, Sanlam Investment Management (SIM) is one of the giants in the South African investment management industry.

SIM incorporates the single manager investment platform of the Sanlam group. It forms the nucleus of the Sanlam Investments cluster and has access to the comprehensive skills and capabilities that are available from the other businesses within the cluster.

We are structured as a multi-specialist boutique asset manager. This enables SIM to cater for a wide range of investment solutions, providing traditional and alternative investment management services for collective investments, life-pooled products and segregated portfolios for third party institutional and retail clients as well as the Sanlam group.

Actively managed mandates follow our unique pragmatic value philosophy. We underpin this philosophy with a research culture and a robust and consistent investment process which is aided by state of the art Decision Support Systems (DSS). Furthermore, with one of the biggest research teams in the country, we ensure maximum leverage for our specialist teams and demonstrable support for our business model and investment platform.

Our international affiliates are Octane - based in Zurich, Luxemborg, Johannesburg and Cape Town, and Sanlam International Investment Partners (SIIP). We also have a dedicated presence in Namibia through our subsidiary Sanlam Investment Management Namibia (Pty) Limited and in Botswana, Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria and India through SIM Emerging Markets.


Dernière mise à jour

mardi 24 mai 2016

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