The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Fraser Stoddart

Published in Chemistry

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

The opportunity to be a creative designer and an engineer of form and function at one of the smallest and most challenging of material levels – namely, the molecular one, in the beginning with all its fancy regulations involving valency and bonding and the like. Quite early on, my imagination started to run riot far beyond the molecule where the fundamental challenges in chemistry lie hidden today in the much more subtle rules that govern weak noncovalent bonding interactions.

At the outset, I would never have dreamt that I would be chasing complexity and emergent phenomena under the guise of chemistry but that’s what is happening now. My experience has been a highly evolutionary and incremental one. I started with a hunch and a hope. I did not really know where chemistry would lead me, other than into the uncharted and the unexpected. I followed my nose but it was most certainly not smells or, for that matter, bangs that got me hooked on chemistry!

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

I would very much like to have been a highly successful writer and novelist. I have always had a fascination with the words and phrases that make up the English language. In fact, writing far too many scientific papers has given me the opportunity to develop my skills – which were dreadfully bad when I was in my twenties – during these past 40 years. If I am spared long enough, then I would love to put pen to paper in ways that might help to bring the excitement of being a scientist, totally and utterly addicted to chemistry, to a wide lay audience in many different places around the globe. We all have a right to dream a little!

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

By being an integral part of it, not only in a materials sense, but as folks who care so deeply about our planet that we would be ready, willing and able to provide it with an alternative way forward into the future that values and honors the sanctity of all living things, including human beings, on the planet. Much of our world revolves around chemistry, probably more than around any other creative medium.

In the 19th century, chemists gave the world dyes and made our lives more colourful, in the 20th century, chemists gave the world drugs (pharmaceuticals), so lengthening our lives and making them more bearable, and, in the 21st century, chemists will give the world devices, making our lives much more fulfilled and immensely more enjoyable. These three d’s are made possible by chemistry which is, in turn, about three m’s – making, measuring, and modeling – and a lot more which could make our world a better place for better living for all of us.

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

William Shakespeare. He was so brilliant and so highly prolific in an out-of-the-box kind of way during such a short and precarious period in history which coincided with the expansionary phase of the Elizabethan Age. I would like to learn from him how he organized his time in order to meet deadline after deadline. He must have had an extremely vivid imagination to have invented all those rich phrases he introduced into the English language.

I would like to have him tell me that he did it all by himself (for I suspect he did) so that I could hold him up as a role model to all the young people in my life whom I urge to do 200 times more than they do currently in their own lives. As one who gets endless fascination out of watching and analyzing human behaviour, it would also be such a privilege to listen to one of the all-time experts on this subject. I suspect I might come to know myself a lot better after dinner with the Bard.

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

Twenty-nine years ago in the summer of 1978 when I left the University of Sheffield to go to the ICI Corporate Laboratory in Runcorn on a three-year secondment. During the 70s, I ran all the NMR spectra for my medium-sized research group since postdoctoral fellows and (post)graduate students were not allowed to use the NMR spectrometers in the Sheffield Chemistry Department, then. I gained access, free from all competition, at five in the morning when my two young daughters made darn sure that I was on my way to the NMR lab at that unearthly hour. By the time we returned as a family to Sheffield in 1982, my daughters had both learned how to sleep and the NMR spectrometers had also become far too sophisticated for a simple-minded guy like me to be able to use them.

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

A well-illustrated (in colour!) and user-friendly English dictionary so that I could extend my rather limited vocabulary, while listening to the Beatles (particularly Paul McCartney singing “When I’m Sixty Four” for that’s what I am!) on that one and only CD. After the tradition of that long-running BBC Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs, I am assuming that the complete works of Shakespeare will be already there on the island.

If, in the spirit of the programme, which incidentally was first broadcast in the year I was born, I can also choose one luxury item, then it would be an endless supply of Liquorice Allsorts. Guess what, if I told you I have only three ambitions left in life, what one of them is? Right! To be invited to be a guest on Desert Island Discs.

Sir Fraser Stoddart is in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles and works on the use of molecular recognition and self-assembly processes in template-directed protocols for the syntheses of two-state mechanically interlocked compounds (bistable catenanes and rotaxanes) that have been employed successfully as switches in molecular electronic devices (MEDs) and as artificial motor-molecules in nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS).

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