The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Barney Grubbs


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I grew up around chemistry (and chemists) and developed the usual youthful obsessions with setting things on fire. I also had some inspirational science and chemistry teachers, Mr. Covington and Paul Groves, in junior high and high school. However, I went off to college planning to study anthropology and later linguistics. At the end of my sophomore year I realized I liked chemistry and went on from there (though I still snuck in a few more linguistics classes). The idea that molecules interact at progressively larger scales to give observable objects and effects combined with the perpetually growing number of ways to go about designing and synthesizing interesting molecules continues to fascinate me and a large community of chemists.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

While I have come to increasingly enjoy cooking as my time in the lab has become less frequent, I don’t think I have the fortitude to survive in the food-preparation industry, even with the embrace of scientific apparatus that “molecular gastronomy” has brought. Participating in the production of alcoholic beverages, while an honorable application of chemical principles, would probably have similar difficulties in terms of financial survival and would be hard on an already overworked liver. If I weren’t a chemist, I would probably be happiest writing about science and/or food and liquor (especially given the chance to consume interesting varieties of the latter substances).

3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?

There are a number of levels on which to consider this one (and I worry that anything I say here will come off as so much hand-waving nonsense). On the most basic level, some of us can make new and useful molecules and materials and others of us can work to understand how new and old molecules interact with each other (and can tell the first group of folks what new types of molecules to make). On a more societal level, I think we somehow need to convince an even greater percentage of the population (1) that what we do as chemists is important and fundamental to our everyday lives and (2) that physics, chemistry and biology are all worth trying to understand on a basic level and that they’re nothing to be scared of. (I’m still working on point 2 myself).

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

If it were mostly a liquid dinner, I would have loved to have had the chance to get Brendan Behan wound up and to enjoy the resulting songs, stories, etc. Benjamin Franklin would probably be a hoot too, and the food would probably be better. If it were someone still alive, I would enjoy the chance to dine with Haruki Murakami and then hang out drinking in smoky Japanese jazz clubs talking about stories.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

In September 2005, I tried out a semi-novel route to some new initiators for free radical polymerization that worked well enough to have a few graduate students follow up and we have so far squeezed a few papers out of it. Mostly I end up doing basic repairs on simple machinery.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?

If it were the right kind of desert island, Euell Gibbons’ Beachcomber’s Handbook would be indispensable (even if just for its description of how to make palm wine). Otherwise Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Murakami might strike some concordant notes with the situation. Unless I could somehow get a magical live stream of WFMU, the CD would be a toss-up between the depleted glory of the Pogues’ “Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash,” the epic black metal of Weakling’s “Dead as Dreams,” or the otherworldly spirituality of Pharoah Sanders’ “Tauhid,” and then I would really miss a whole bunch of other music (and civilization, too). [And what did I do to earn an island exile anyway?!]

Barney Grubbs is in the Department of Chemistry at Dartmouth College and works on making polymers that really ought to assemble into larger, allegedly more interesting, maybe even someday useful, but still very tiny structures.

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