Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions – Klaus Theopold

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Actually, the first thing I remember wanting to be was an astronomer. However, as I grew older I got to thinking that there were very limited employment opportunities for astronomers. Fortunately, the father of my best friend in high school was a chemistry professor (Prof. Wolfgang Walter, at the Universität Hamburg), and he supplied us with glassware, chemicals, and some initial demonstrations. Pretty soon I was hooked on ‘making things’. Those were the days when a kid could go to the drug store and buy some serious chemicals. My favorite chemical memory is the preparation and distillation of elemental bromine on a rather large scale in our kitchen. To this day I love chemical synthesis.

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

I would want to be a glassblower or work with glass in some capacity. Glass is an absolutely fabulous material with incredible chemical and physical properties. The transformation of molten glass into intricate solid structures has always fascinated me, and I love the feel and look of glass objects. The fragility only adds to the allure.

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

That depends on what kind of chemist you are. As a professor, I think my contribution to the world are the people I train. In a more general sense, the most important problems humans are facing involve chemistry. Renewable energy, environmental protection, and pharmaceuticals are some of the obvious challenges that will keep chemists busy.

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

Jesus Christ – the real historical person, that is. My father (a psychotherapist by profession) spent much of his life trying to understand this man, and the subsequent development of Christianity. He had some interesting conjectures about Jesus’ life, and I would like to ask him about those.

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

About three months ago. I helped a graduate student measure the amount of gas given off in a reaction, using a Toepler pump. We don’t use this apparatus very often, and I always seem to be the only one in the lab who remembers how to operate it.

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

Hmmm – a desert island with amenities like CD players? I love the music of Charlie Parker – so a compilation of his best songs would be my choice. If I had to be there for a really long time, an alto sax would be nice, to practice playing along. As for the book, I would take Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’. I firmly believe in evolution, but I have never taken the time to read his book. Besides, I gather it has some tips about survival on an island.

Klaus Theopold is currently Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware and works on the synthesis and characterization of transition metal compounds with interesting structure and reactivity.


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