The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Neil Withers


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

A combination of natural curiosity, parents who are scientists (with enough patience to answer endless questions), good teachers throughout my school years – and finally luck, in the form of the admissions tutor at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Durham. The Natural Science course for which I’d applied was over-subscribed, and Mike Crampton wrote to ask if I’d like to change my application to chemistry. I did, and 12 years later, here I am on Nature Chemistry.

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

Working for Heston Blumenthal on his ‘molecular gastronomy’ would be pretty amazing, and certainly looks great fun on TV. But that’s practically chemistry!

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

Engage with it. Chemistry can, and has, improved the world to a staggering degree, but people just don’t seem to be aware of it. So if the general population can appreciate what chemistry has done for it, that engagement could remove some of the problems that chemistry is perceived to cause. For example, people might be so keen on polluting if they understood the potential damage more.

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

Bede and Linus Pauling. Defining what chemistry is, is always tricky, but for me it comes down to chemical bonds, and Pauling pretty much invented the way we see chemical bonds today. In addition to his chemistry Nobel Prize, he also won the peace Prize for campaigning against war and nuclear weapons, and he remains the only person to win two un-shared Nobel prizes. Bede was a monk in the kingdom of Northumbria in the 7th century AD (a system of reckoning time that he in fact invented). While he’s remembered today as ‘the father of English history’, his knowledge and influence is far greater than that. It’s incredible to think that, in a place often seen nowadays as so far from civilisation at the time, he ‘had at his command all the learning of his time’.

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

Well, outside the lab, I made some Chelsea buns before I started on Nature Chemistry. I followed the ‘lab script’ carefully, weighed out my ‘reagents’ as accurately as I could and ended up with better looking ‘products’ than I ever made as an undergraduate! The pictures are on Facebook if anyone cares to look. Seriously, the last experiments I did in my PhD were conductivity measurements – but not before the seriously fiddly soldering of copper wires onto my precious samples (metal oxychalcogenide pellets), and hoping for an ohmic contact.

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

As lots of other people cheat on this one, so shall I! I would love to take the 20 books of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin cycle or all the Jeeves and Blandings books of PG Wodehouse. If you’re going to be strict, I’ll plump for a Ray Mears survival guide! The man’s a legend anyway…

As for a CD, it’s a close call between Johnny Cash at San Quentin and the Stone Roses’ eponymous debut album. I think the Stone Roses win on points!

Neil Withers is an Associate Editor for Nature Chemistry.

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