The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Michael O’Keeffe


Michael O’Keeffe is in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University, and works on the application of geometry to the design and synthesis of inorganic materials.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Actually I wanted to be a mathematician, but was told that there would be no future in that. In school we were taught chemistry by a retired chemical engineer who regaled us with tales of his adventures as a mining engineer in South America. Chemistry seemed like a lot more fun than physics. Funnily enough, I have never been to South America, and recently at least one of their mines didn’t seem like much fun either.

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

If I had the talent I would love to be an architect. Such a wonderful marriage of art and engineering.

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

I dream of arriving at some ideas for designed (“rational”) synthesis of new zeolites and related materials. It is remarkable that the synthesis of such important materials is at present almost entirely empirical — in contrast to what has recently been developed for metal–organic frameworks (MOFs) etc.

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

Michael Faraday is my nominee for the greatest scientist ever. But I think J. D. Bernal, who is also high on my list, would be a delightful dinner companion.

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

A long time ago. In the early 70’s we were the first to realize that some simple salts would be good anion-conducting solid electrolytes (“superionic conductors”). At that time I had just one overworked student, Carl Derrington who was working on lead fluoride, so I decided to do yttrium fluoride and lutetium fluoride myself. The results were spectacular and I published them in Science. (How often do you see a single author experimental paper these days?). Carl wasn’t cheated. His lead fluoride work went into Nature, and he was first author on five other papers. Not bad for a Ph.D.

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

Book: I would take the best and deepest book on group theory that I could find to while away the hours. Music: Anything by Bach for a solo instrument, perhaps the Goldberg Variations. And might I have one program for my solar-powered computer? If so a FORTRAN compiler please.

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

Osamu Terasaki. I think experimental chemists could profitably learn some theory — such as in his case diffraction physics. Osamu and his group have done exquisite experiments that, when combined with deep theoretical insights, have had an enormous impact on materials chemistry. His story should be an inspiration to young chemists.

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