The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Maurizio Prato


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

When I was a teenager I used to read, rather regularly, the Italian translation of Scientific American and was fascinated by genetics. When the time came to decide where to go, I was recommended, quite wrongly but I realized it only later, to study chemistry, biochemistry and then specialize in genetics. As a matter of fact, I enrolled in chemistry and while studying, I became more and more attracted by organic chemistry until I completely fell in love with this discipline. At that time, I was also strongly influenced by my mentor in organic chemistry, in Padova.

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

A medical doctor. Understanding how the human machine works always fascinated me. Also, saving lives makes you feel good. But, I am actually very happy to be a chemist and a scientist in general.

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

Today, the general image of chemistry in the public is totally biased and is mainly associated with pollution. Young people are therefore less and less encouraged to study and develop chemistry and instead are attracted by chemistry-based disciplines, like environmental sciences. However, the contributions of chemistry, from drugs to an infinite number of commodities, have so much improved the quality of our lives that the question of how chemistry contributes to the world at large is actually pleonastic. Maybe, we should be more aware of society-related problems and be ambassadors of the “good” chemistry among the public.

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

The great Greek philosopher Plato. The Greek civilization was one of the most active and influential periods in Western Europe. Much of their behaviour was more pleasant and open-minded than today’s lifestyle. Their culture was extremely well-developed, their mathematics very sophisticated – the Platonic Solids, for instance, are amongst the most fascinating geometrical forms for a chemist. In addition, there are many mysterious stories that are described in their books, which we still do not know about. For instance, Plato, in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, mentions Atlantis, the legendary island, for the first time. Did actually Atlantis exist? Was it really in the Atlantic Ocean? Why did it sink into the ocean?

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

It was more than 15 years ago, and I cannot remember exactly what it was. At that time I used to carry out cycloaddition reactions, so I tend to believe it was one of these.

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

As a book, I would take The Magic Mountain (or The Enchanted Mountain) by Thomas Mann (original title: Der Zauberberg). The reasons one likes and remembers a book strongly depend on the historical moment of one’s life when he/she read it. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is another one I was fascinated by when I read it. What I like in these books is the vision of life, not only love and sentiments, but also philosophy, natural sciences, history, etc. They have such an amount of interesting issues that it takes ages to digest everything. In addition to this, I would take a copy of the third act of Die Walküre, by Richard Wagner, which contains an intense and musically unparalleled dialog between Wotan and Brunnhild. I never get tired of listening to it.

Maurizio Prato is in the Dipartimento di Scienze Farmaceutiche at the University of Trieste, Italy, and works on several aspects of synthetic organic chemistry applied to materials science and medicinal chemistry.

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