The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Christopher Cahill


Christopher L. Cahill is in the Department of Chemistry at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, where he works on uranium containing materials.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

This may be a disappointing answer, yet I never ‘wanted’ to be a chemist. Rather, I just kind of fell into it. I went to college to be a music major and very quickly learned that being the hot-shot in the high school band did not translate to having any real talent. I had my first advising session with a ‘default’ advisor who happened to be a Chemistry professor. He suggested I take General Chem just to get on a science track in case the whole music thing didn’t work out – very perceptive! I pursued a geochemistry degree and became enamored with natural systems, particularly minerals.

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

This is a tough one. Fantasy answer: drummer in a rock band – big time. Plausible answer: economist. I am intrigued by global scale ‘cause and effect’ scenarios and love traveling to exotic locations. If, on the other hand, I had the attention span, patience (and an alternate source of income), I’d return to my family’s apple orchard.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

Synthesis, reactivity and spectroscopy of uranium containing materials. I am very much interested in the environmental impact of the nuclear fuel cycle. We are headed for a renaissance of nuclear power and we need to address some tough issues regarding waste stewardship, reactor design and non-proliferation of weapons capable material. Beyond the experimental science, some colleagues and I are hard at work on curriculum development here at GW to bring policy people and scientists together. We are developing lab courses for the non-scientists and policy courses for the scientists. Policy (and often not science) is at the center of most decisions regarding nuclear issues. We need both camps to be ready. I hope these efforts lead to an educated workforce and a solid body of knowledge to allow for unbiased, fact based decision making at all levels.

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

Thomas Jefferson. I have always been fascinated by this guy – a real polymath, and you know the wine would be good. I would want to know more about the birth of a nation and his interest in agriculture and starting vineyards in America. His views on the dissemination of knowledge are timeless. I would call him out however, on his take on gender/race inequality (after eating, of course).

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

This week – a single crystal structure determination of a uranyl tetrachloride compound. These days, most of my experimental work is crystallographic in nature. I am afraid I haven’t dirtied a beaker in some time.

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

The music album response is a no-brainer: “The Last Waltz” by The Band. The version of “The Weight” featuring The Staples Singers is the most profound piece of rock music ever performed. In fact, I have the DVD of this concern which we use as mandatory viewing at research group parties at my house.

As for the book, this is tough. Assuming there is no Fodor’s “Desert Islands on $50 a Day”, I’ll take a “Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

I assume an impossible reply is acceptable? So – Joseph Priestley! I am fascinated by figures who are experts/versed in a range of subjects and who work (struggle?) to reconcile faith with science. This answer may be subconsciously related to my desire to have dinner with Thomas Jefferson. Specifically, I’d want to know why he held on to phlogiston so long, how he feels about being credited with founding Unitarianism and if he wished he’d kept a lower profile regarding the French Revolution.

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