Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions – Sason Shaik

Sason Shaik is in the Department of Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and works on general theories of bonding, structure, and chemical reactivity.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

It was always the “magic of chemistry”, one substance disappears and a new one suddenly appears. In my early teens these were the visual changes I could concoct. Back then, you could go to the pharmacy and purchase a few chemicals, like sulfur, potassium permanganate, HCl, etc, and there was the laboratory in school… I had red phosphorous, potassium and sodium, zinc, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, sulfur, mercury, carbon pills, the red oxide of mercury, and so on. When I started high school, I got a hold of a book that had recipes for making “gentle” explosives that scared the old neighbor who used to chase our soccer ball, H2S that irritated the teacher, igniting hydrogen, etc. One day I “discovered” the gas chlorine while mixing KMnO4 with HCl and seeing a vigorous effervescence. I stuck my nose in and took a deep breath; I almost chocked. I tell this “discovery” to my History of Chemistry students when we reach the story of Scheele’s death. When I turned 15, I was torn between my loves of humanities and literature and for chemistry. I ended up choosing natural sciences, I suspect because I loved chemistry which was so much fun. My flirt with wet photography made the “magic of chemistry” more awesome. Then in the university I discovered creatures called orbitals, and was enchanted by mechanistic chemistry, structure determination, spectroscopy, and then by quantum chemistry. It was so exciting; I finally had the tools to understand the “magic of chemistry”! I was slowly being converted to become a theorist. Chemistry was now also intellectually charming.

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

I would be a writer or a poet. I like writing, writing, and writing…

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

On principles of bond activation by enzymes and synthetic metals, brain chemistry, and new bonding motives. I hope to be able to generalize the new concepts of two-state reactivity and exchange-enhanced reactivity, and to change the mental map of chemical bonding. I am also lecturing on chemistry to humanities and to the wide public, and hope my notes will become a book. At the moment, I only have a title; “Chemistry as a Game of Lego”…

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

I think Gilbert Newton Lewis would be my choice. Ever since I read his 1916 JACS paper (for an essay I had to prepare for the JCC issue on the 90th years anniversary of the chemical bond), I felt great admiration for this person who affected chemistry so much.

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

In my masters degree in 1974. This was the reaction of TeCl4 with olefins and aromatics, and this is when the “magic of chemistry” was playing tricks on me. I tell all about this adventure in J. Phys. Chem. A. 112, 12724-12736 (2008), and how it contributed to making me a theorist.

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

Can I take my wife with me? I would not go unless I could take many books, one of these books would certainly be the poems collection of David Fogel, my favorite poet. The same about albums.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

Roald Hoffmann.


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