The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Jonathan Steed

Published in Chemistry

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I was always going to be a chemist even before I really knew what it meant. It seemed to be proper, tactile science. My two year old son was standing up on a chair at the sink this afternoon pouring water into washing up liquid and, I suppose, unwittingly making monolayers or micelles. My mum says that was me about 35 years ago. Maybe he’ll be the same?

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

I would be a writer I guess; from the mould of Giles Milton (author of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and some other amazing tales of historical fact). I love to throw myself into a project and live and breathe it until it’s out there as a finished package. As a chemist I get to be a writer anyway… and a whole host of other things besides, and textbooks are a hell of a lot easier to get published than fiction! P.S. … I suppose I might be tempted to be a hotshot lawyer – they make a staggering amount of money. That might be nice for a little while at least but then I hate to argue.

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

How long have we got? Everything that is real and tactile in the modern world is underpinned by chemistry. Apart from the myriad of everyday things like soap, asprin and WD40, I think the challenge facing molecular scientists is to gain that molecule-scale control over materials that could underpin substances and objects with the kind of smart functionality only the likes of the recently departed Kurt Vonnegut could dream of.

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

My partner and I love to play “fantasy dinner guests”. For a while we had Kirstie and Phil from Location, Location, Location up there on the list. Connie Nielsen and Russell Crowe (from the movie Gladiator) were also contenders. Historical figures is a more interesting one. Somewhere (lower) on my list I would have both Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler – I’d ask them both the same question: “What were you thinking?!” The top choice would go to someone from ancient history though, unfettered by our current (in my case, Western) cultural mould. I bet the “old liar” Herodotus could spin a good yarn to entertain the guests over a glass of fine wine. “What have you heard about the Minoans? Atlantis? Akhenaten?” I would ask, and then sit back and enjoy the results.

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

I labour under the misapprehension that I can crystallise things that others cannot. This usually means that I leave dried out vials of slowly darkening, valuable chemicals laying around to gather dust and dead flies. I can now reveal that, in fact, deceased insects and fluff do not aid crystal nucleation and growth, contrary to my fondest hopes.

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

The book (after a long struggle that ultimately ended with the rejection of Lord of the Rings solely because Liv Tyler is only in the movie, not the written version), would be John Fowles’ The Magus (the second, re-written edition). It’s seductive and enigmatic enough to keep you interested on a few re-reads, and it has that beauty of language and warm Mediterranean imagery that pros like Fowles have honed over many years… I kind of want to go off and read it right now actually. As for the CD (hopefully with a CD player and a decent battery? I know, I’m anal) it would be a late 90s style dance/chillout/electronica type compilation. Something with things like Sandstorm, Silence, Offshore… If you’re on a desert island it might as well be Ibiza.

Jonathan Steed is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Durham and works on supramolecular chemistry and nanochemistry.

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