The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Penny Brothers


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Science ran in my family – my father was a geology professor and my mother was a botanist. I used to visit my father at work and the geology department had display cases with beautiful crystalline minerals that used to fascinate me. The breakthrough came when I first encountered chemistry at school and found that I didn’t have to be limited to gazing at beautiful crystals in a glass case, I could make them myself!

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

I would be drawn to something that had a similar combination of being people-oriented, practically-oriented and involving lots of problem solving. After I was drawn into chemistry with its necessary hours of time spent in labs I became very interested in outdoor activities – not always a good mix. I have also always liked writing and reading and been interested in the publishing industry. How could I combine all of these? Maybe I should have been born 150 years ago and been one of those intrepid explorers that broke new scientific ground by travelling to exotic places and observing and documenting what they found there.

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

The solutions to the major problems facing the world at present – finding energy sources that can provide quality of life for the world’s population without further damage to the environment – will be chemical solutions. Particularly in the area of energy and sustainability it is chemists who are defining the problems and seeking the answers.

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

Alfred Stock. I teach and research in boron chemistry and it amazes me how Stock managed to achieve such a wealth of chemistry, preparing and handling toxic and air-sensitive compounds without the benefit of our present-day sophisticated equipment and analytical tools.

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

It depends on what counts – yesterday I helped an undergraduate student in the teaching lab crystallise her nickel complex. The last time I did a real experiment in the lab would have been in 1993 on sabbatical leave with Phil Power at UC Davis.

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

The book would be the Bible – good ripping yarns, narrative history, lots of pages with fine print so it would be a lengthy read, and maybe have some handy advice for coping with the spiritual and psychological side of being exiled on a desert island. The CD would be Handel’s Messiah – similar reasons, music that goes from the depths of despair to the heights of joy, plus I could sing along to the alto part.

Penny Brothers is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and works on porphyrin and corrole complexes containing two boron atoms, which show unusual structural and reactivity at both boron and the ligands.

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