The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Simon Webb

Published in Chemistry

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1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I actually wanted to be a scientist from a young age, and had early flirtations with zoology and physics. However, my father was responsible for my conversion to chemistry; he bought me some books on chemistry and a big bag of sulfur, then turned a blind eye to the resulting noxious vapours that emerged from the tool shed.

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

I guess there are two other areas that interest me. I love reading, so owning a bookshop has always been an attractive idea. I’ve also found the ins and outs of running a small business fascinating (my father’s influence again).

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

I’m sure chemistry’s best contribution will come from an unexpected area, so diversity in research is essential. However, I think improving human health and lifespan will continue to be a primary concern for society. The rapid increase in our knowledge of cellular chemistry offers great opportunities for chemists in this area, and there will be a need to create new classes of highly specific drugs and biomaterials for an aging society. Finally, improving public understanding and perceptions of science is a great challenge for all scientists, including chemists.

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

I’ve become interested in the life of Ernest Rutherford since recently discovering that he used to live close by in south Manchester. I would like to know how he felt about his transition from resident of small town New Zealand to one of the great researchers of the modern age.

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

Unfortunately I don’t have the opportunity to work in the lab very often; it is certainly something I miss. My last experiment was about 3 months ago, testing an experimental procedure that I’d suggested for a schools’ liaison event. Pushing my diminishing experimental skills to the limit, I produced several grams of copper carbonate.

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

I’d take a nice thick history book, probably on Ancient Rome (a current passion), along with “Discofreakout”, a compilation of 70s’ disco hits. After finishing the book, I would burn it to attract passing ships.

Simon Webb is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Manchester, UK, and uses chemistry to mimic aspects of biological systems, particularly the structure and function of biological membranes.

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