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Death of ex-university lecturer could finally solve riddle that has baffled science for 36 YEARS

Mirror logo Mirror 04/08/2017 Mike Kelly
Credits: Chronicle Live © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: Chronicle Live

A science riddle that has remained unanswered for 36 years could finally be solved following the death of a former university lecturer.

Dr David E.H. Jones put the solution to the riddle - which has taxed the scientific world for nearly four decades - in an envelope before he died.

Now, after he passed away aged 79 last month, the envelope containing the answer is to be handed to a former colleague, Chronicle Live reports.

Dr Jones, a former Newcastle University teacher, was an ‘organic chemist’.

He was best known for a column he wrote under the pen name ‘Daedalus’ in which he dreamed up and occasionally built bizarre contraptions.

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They included his ‘Perpetual Motion Machine’ which takes the form of a bike wheel that has spun endlessly with no apparent source of energy.

From the outset, Dr Jones said it was a fake and challenged anybody to explain how it works.

Hundreds have tried, no-one has succeeded. In the end he made four of the machines, three of which have been displayed around the world.

The original, built in 1981, is still working and is on the mantelpiece of his brother Peter’s house in Jesmond, Newcastle.

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After David’s death, at his request, the envelope containing the solution is to be handed to his former colleague in Newcastle, Sir Martyn Poliakoff, who now works at Nottingham University.

However Prof Poliakoff, who has not yet received it, admitted he was in two minds as to whether he will open the envelope when he does.

"Part of me is keen to know,” he said.

“But I might then realise how silly we were in not guessing how it works. And anyway, some things are best left to the imagination and remaining a secret.”

The esteem in which Dr Jones was held is revealed in the obituaries penned to him worldwide, including the New York Times and the Washington Post in the US.

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Prof Poliakoff spoke of Dr Jones as the ‘fore runner’ of physicist Brian Cox who has popularised science to a modern audience.

The “Daedalus” column Dr Jones penned for years began in the New Scientist in 1964 and transferred to Nature in the 1980s, and also the Guardian, before it was retired in 2002.

Daedalus was the ancient Greek craftsman who created the wings that Icarus used to fly too close to the sun.

He also appeared many times on TV, particularly in Germany, where he was a regular guest on a science quiz show called ‘Kopf um Kopf’ (Head to Head), presenting interesting physics experiments.

Dr Jones was born in London and after earning a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Imperial College London was the Sir James Knott Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle in 1974.

He worked in the School of Chemistry and remained for many years as a guest member of staff.

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In his life he described himself as a fraud, charlatan and “court jester in the palace of science.”

Although some articles were a flight of fancy he was credited with anticipating several major creations and discoveries.

In 1966 he proposed the idea of a hollow molecule, “a flat sheet of carbon atoms bonded hexagonally rather like chicken wire.”

Three scientists produced just such a molecule in 1985, and were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their efforts in 1996.

On a radio programme, he suggested that Napoleon’s death could indeed have been caused by arsenic poisoning as some had suggested - but not deliberate.

He said it may have resulted from a green, arsenic-based dye used in some 19th-century wallpapers.

A subsequent article, co-written with Kenneth Ledingham in Nature, partly confirmed Dr Jones’s suspicion, uncovering high arsenic levels in the French emperor’s wallpaper that, at the very least, may have caused him to become ill.

Dr Jones died on July 19 of complications of prostate cancer at a hospice in Newcastle. He left no family.

A commemorations service was held this week at the West End Crematorium in Newcastle.

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Peter said: “He was fantastic uncle to our children. He’d come every Sunday for lunch with some explosive or rocket to amuse them.”

He said his brother would also create extraordinary birthday cards for his kids. One, when opened, sprang into a cardboard box.

Another turned into a suit of ready to wear armour. A third opened out into the largest birthday card ever made.

“The children used to take them to school to show everybody. The teachers were a bit wary,” he laughed.

Peter hopes Prof Poliakoff does have a look at the explanation behind the Perpetual Motion Machine, the “scientific conjuring trick,” as Dr Jones called it.

“So long as he keeps it to himself and he then passes it on to someone else," he said.

“I’d love to know but if I found out I’d just gab it and everyone would know.”

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