The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Bruce Gibb

Published in Chemistry

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I was always drawn to science. There’s something deep and innate behind this, something best left to beers not blogs. As to why chemistry, I think it was the combination of its transformational abilities and the hands on practical experiences. I mean you can transform atoms with nuclear physics, but there wasn’t much in the way of practical experience as an undergraduate; except “watching” the decay of a radioactive species. To me this seemed slightly negative and sad, like being a geriatric nurse not a midwife. On the other hand, you could get into the chemistry laboratory and actually make stuff. Convert A into B, see the change in color, or measure some other change. Wow!

Within chemistry, I was definitely drawn to organic chemistry by the beauty and majesty of reaction mechanisms. There’s an aesthetic appeal both in the geometric way that we draw organic molecules, and in the dynamism of the “flow” of electrons; the myriad, counter-balancing possible routes, the mechanistic dead-ends, the reversibility and irreversibility of the different steps. Truly a wonderful language. Perhaps not surprisingly, I also find the emerging field of systems chemistry (and biology) fascinating.

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

That’s an easy one, a meteorologist. I’m drawn to the dynamism and complexities of weather systems, but beyond that there’s also something awe-inspiring and humbling about the scale of weather phenomenon. This is especially so with severe weather. It was estimated that hurricane Katrina (with which everyone in New Orleans had personal experience of) ditched 54 trillion watts of power in the five hours it took to come on shore in August 29th 2005. That sort of power output is influential.

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

Like all people, chemists can best contribute by being prudent yet proactive. We should all try to weigh the long-term as much as the short-term, tread carefully when the path is unclear, and act decisively when certainty permits; all within a sound ethical framework.

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

I’m a bit of an iconoclast so there’s no one historical person I’d really like to meet. Add to that the fact that history tends to distort personalities by exaltation or demonization, and there’s the distinct possibility that they would be a let down. Now meeting a well-educated person from the future is a different matter. To ask how the human experiment is going – over a good chicken saag – would be intriguing.

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

The last time I did an experiment in the lab was just before my group threw me out for asking too many annoying questions. Where are the round bottom flasks? Unfortunately, my ignorance of laboratory geography underlies the trend to put too much emphasis on quantity rather than quality. Presumably because the former is so much easier to define, there is all to often too much reliance on bean-counting. We all of course strive for quality, but all too often it’s a matter of number of publications, value of grants etc., that are the measure of a scientist (and the size of the paycheck). So like most people my age (41) I deal with administrative minutia and push paper while I strive to build an empire. Would I be a better teacher, and perhaps have more good ideas, if I could clear the decks a bit and spend time in the lab? Absolutely. I wager it would also be more fun.

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

If I were to be allowed to take a CD and CD player onto an island, I would swap them for a DVD player and a DVD. I’m a movie buff ahead of a lover of music. If I could get away with that slight-of-hand, I’d take Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia”. A bit sad for those down-days perhaps, but its a mesmerizing work of art, filled with beautiful scenes and a wonderful collection of quality actors.

If I could slip in a second disc (those boxes are often designed for more than one), I’d take David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Outstanding! A gripping tale of a deep, often perplexing character framed to perfection both cinematographically and musically. They seldom make them like they used to.

As for a book, I’d probably plump for a one that gave me plenty to get my teeth into, such as the complete work of Shakespeare. I’ve a feeling that the sort of book I enjoy reading (current affairs with a political, scientific, ecological or economical bent) would be a bit out of context on the island. Speaking of context, maybe I should exchange Shakespeare for a survival handbook?

Bruce Gibb is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of New Orleans and works on designing supramolecular systems with novel and unusual properties.

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