Professor Bassam Z. Shakhashiri is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and contributes to national science education policy and practice. He advocates communicating with the general public through engaging science demonstrations, the web, electronic and print media, radio, television, and — best of all — in person.
1. What made you want to be a chemist?
Curiosity! When I was growing up in my native Lebanon, my mother knitted a sweater for me. It was warm and comfortable, but what struck me the most was its bright yellow color. I was curious, and asked lots of questions. What makes it yellow? What is yellow? I was fascinated and started thinking about color in my surroundings. Trees have green leaves and some stay green year round, like the Cedars of Lebanon. The leaves of other trees change color and fall off in autumn, only to reappear, green, in the spring. I received lots of encouragement from my parents and teachers. Later, during my formal education in America, I began to understand more about color and my youthful curiosities were satisfied, but this led to further questions that directed my scholarly investigations. I chose chemistry to help me understand the beautiful complexity of our world.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be — and why?
Political and social activist. I am dedicated to public service and feel that it is important to both advance science and serve society — that is why I went to work in Washington D.C. in the mid-1980s. I was chief education officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF). I led the resurgence of NSF’s science and engineering education programs at all levels after the programs were essentially zeroed out early in the Reagan Administration. I am committed to cultivating creativity and to fostering connectivity among science, the arts and the humanities for the betterment of society. I engage in conversations about the two strongest forces in society: science and religion.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
My research work has expanded beyond developing new chemistry demonstrations for use in classrooms and in public venues to focusing on understanding more deeply how we learn and how we act on what we learn. Our first effort dealt with color, light, vision, and perception and resulted in Volume 5 in our book series (published by the UW Press). Systemically, we are pursuing hearing, touch, taste and smell in collaboration with neuroscientists and other experts. I am devoted to the Wisconsin Idea which is one of the earliest expressions of the obligation of a great university to serve all the people of the state and, by extension, all the people of the world. The goals of our newest program SCIENCE IN MOTION are: fostering community appreciation of science, cultivating creativity, exploring, learning, and sharing the joy of science among youth and adults alike.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?
It is a toss-up between Plato and Abraham Lincoln. I would want to learn more about Being, knowledge, metaphor, belief, spirituality, and democracy. I would want to learn more about conviction, judgement, respect, public sentiment, war, and forgiveness.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab — and what was it?
I do experiments all the time, both inside the lab and outside the lab, in front of crowds and for small groups. In December of 2016, I held my 47th Annual ‘Once Upon a Christmas Cheery In the Lab of Shakhashiri’ program, a tradition inspired by the great British chemist Michael Faraday. During the live program, my special guests and I do experiments for an audience ranging in age from 5 to 85. I also encourage the audience and the TV viewers to do home experiments we post on my website, at scifun.org.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
Plato’s The Republic. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions — and why?
Roald Hoffmann, a great scientist and a gifted humanist.