The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions: Ehud Keinan

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Ehud Keinan, President of the Israel Chemical Society, is in the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and works on supramolecular chemistry, biomolecular computing and biocatalysis.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

My chemistry teacher in high school, Mr. Zeev Karp, opened for me a window to the magic world of fascinating colors, smells, tastes, sounds, action and concepts that excited all my senses, triggered my curiosity, and fueled my imagination. At age 17, discovering the great opportunity of merging business with pleasure, I was determined to go for chemistry. I realized that if I became a research chemist I am awarded with a license to extend my childhood for the rest of my life, a license to keep playing wild games, with all the associated joy of discovery and creativity, and even be compensated for that. Obviously, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I grabbed it. The funny thing is that even now, 50 years later, and being slightly less naïve, I still think the same way about chemistry.

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

I would probably be doing anything that involves imagination and creativity but nothing that involves routine procedures. I would be happy being a visual artist, photographer for National Geographic, architect, carpenter, gardener, a member of an exploring expedition, etc. In retrospect, as a research chemist I have been all of these.

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

I am working now on several things, probably too many. Yet, a new type of synthetic cavitands intrigues me much these days. We named these macrocyclic host molecules “multifarenes” due to their multifarious structures, comprising several different building blocks. One can envision many potential applications of these hollow molecules, including chemical sensing, highly selective catalysis and nano-fabrication. But frankly, my main motivation to make these molecules is their beautiful molecular architecture and the synthetic challenges involved.

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

Undoubtedly, my choice would be Thomas Jefferson. I guess that I share the view of President John F. Kennedy, who said in 1962 at a White House dinner attended by every living American Nobel Laureate: “There has never been a greater concentration of intellectual power here at the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” I adore his eternal statement inscribed around the rotunda interior in Jefferson Memorial: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Definitely, he is the guy I would love to spend some time with.

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

This is a painful issue, the frustrating side of my career. I have never wanted a career that requires sitting in a closed office for long hours, and, ironically, this is what I do most of my day. My most enjoyable experiments were always related to organic and organometallic synthesis, building a complex experimental setup with well-crafted glassware and sophisticated mechanical and electronic gadgets. Unfortunately, it has been already 10 years or more since I had an opportunity of playing alone with these toys. One of the games that I enjoy most is crystallizing a new organic compound, which has always involved more art than science. It is highly rewarding and aesthetically pleasing to watch the growing crystals of something that has never existed before. It is exciting to reveal the crystallographic structure, which is always unexpected, pretty much like scratching a lottery card or opening the white envelope in the Oscar ceremony.

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

I would probably take Beethoven symphonies or string quartets. The music is so rich with details and emotions, so it is never boring to listen to it time and again and discover hidden elements every time, pretty much like looking again and again at a masterpiece of Rembrandt or van Gogh. This is important because I’ll probably have much free time on that island. For the same reasons I would choose March’s Advanced Organic Chemistry because I love organic chemistry, I love thinking of reaction mechanisms and the limitless architecture of organic molecules. I am sure that every time I’ll get back to March I’ll find new points and come up with new ideas. Frankly, I look forward to going exile on a desert island because this will give me a great opportunity to focus on writing my own book, which has been waiting for too long.

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

Either Albert Eschenmoser or Jack Dunitz would be a great choice. Both are not only giant scientists but also extremely original and creative individuals with very broad knowledge and broad perspective on almost any topic, a quality that many specialized scientists lack these days. I see both as role models for the young generation of scientists and I’ll be intrigued to read their answers to the above questions.

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