The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Stephen Davey


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

The serious but predictable answer is a couple of really good science teachers, so thanks should go to the inspirational Andrew Munro and Jeremy Bushrod. The fun answer is John Nettles. I guess I should qualify that answer. It was my enthusiasm for a variety of TV cop shows – I use the term broadly to encompass a whole variety of mystery drama that initially made me consider forensic science as a career. Thankfully one or both of the above teachers encouraged me to keep my options open and study something broader – like chemistry. It’s a relief that at university I became more interested in organic chemistry, since I’ve saved myself from needing to be an expert in pathology, ballistics, analytical chemistry and all the other multi-talents exhibited by the average main character in these shows. Don’t get me wrong, I still watch these things, but the truth about the science gets heavily bent by the writer’s artistic licence.

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

I’m now too old to dream about becoming a professional sportsman of any sort, but whilst at the University of Sheffield, I took up playing snooker. I’m not good enough to do that professionally either, but I think I could make a decent stab at being a referee. I’d get to travel the world while doing something I love, and everyday would be different. The similarities to being a journal editor are quite frankly astonishing.

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

Aside from the obvious – solutions to disease, food shortage, energy, etc. – I think it would be great if we could dispel some of the myths about science. I’m forever disappointed that science is presented in schools as a long list of undeniable facts – the result of which is that many people who potentially could be great scientists are turned off at an early age and never return.

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

Francis Bacon, one of the fathers of modern science philosophy. In many ways this relates to my answer to question 3. I’d also like to be able to check and dispel the myth that he was Shakespeare.

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

In the midst of the sink of entropy that was my fume cupboard – ask any who have shared a lab with me – it was probably a diazo-thioketone coupling reaction that is the cornerstone of making some of the light driven molecular motors of the Feringa group. I was rather pleased as I achieved a >90% yield in a reaction that was often problematic, although I think the particular combination of reactants I was using was the telling factor.

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

Queens’s greatest hits – I’m not sure how this works, but I know from experience that with time all music kept in a car becomes a Queen CD. I thought perhaps taking this with me would mean I would have access to a whole selection of music. As for the book – March’s Organic chemistry! No, seriously I’d have to take a fairly hefty tome though, I rarely read a book twice and I’d need something to keep me going for a long while once I realised that the Queen CD was a bad idea. Perhaps a survival guide might be a good idea as well – particularly if it included instructions on how to build a raft out of coconut shells.

Stephen Davey is an Associate Editor for Nature Chemistry.

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