1. What made you want to be a chemist?
Pure curiosity – I have always wanted to be a scientist, but I kind of drifted to chemistry partly because biology seemed to be more about classification than science, and physics seemed unreal and only worked in special situations. Chemistry works, is messy, can be counted, and we can even help the physicists with some of our compounds which turn out to be quantum spin tubes now anyway as the result of some messy chemistry that’s being done in my laboratory…
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I really could not conceive of doing anything else – being allowed to do science and getting paid for it is amazing. If I had to do something else I would probably like to have a go at being an artist specialising in modern art or a mathematician. Both are very different but creative professions and are only constrained by the limits of one’s imagination.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
By doing fundamental science and following our curiosity. I think that the pressure to do relevant things is so high nowadays that we risk completely missing some truly amazing discoveries that could change the world. Having said that, it is also becoming increasingly true that chemistry and chemists can help address some of the biggest issues facing us today – access to clean water, energy, global warming – in fact solving the energy problem and global warming appear to me to be one and the same thing. Why not set out to design a material that fixes carbon dioxide with water and drive the process with photons and then, hey presto, you have access to hydrocarbons to burn without the carbon dioxide hangover. Of course, nature has already been doing this for us, but we need to speed up the kinetics to produce hydrocarbons in real time as it were. Actually, I would favour making methanol since we could burn it and use it in fuel cells.
Chemistry can also help examine some of the most interesting problems in science today relating to complexity, emergent systems and even asking where we came from in terms of the origin of life. This is a big question – I think it may be possible to go from a chemical soup to primitive chemical cells that could be considered to be alive in a matter of a few hundred hours rather than millions / billions of years. I am also looking forward for the chemist / materials scientist than can produce infinitely long carbon nanotubes so we can make a space elevator, then we can all get to become a space tourist without the need for a big rocket.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
There are so many people I would like to have dinner with. Can I not just have a part in Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure and bring them all to my house for a dinner party using the phone box time machine? It would be interesting to see how Newton and Einstein would get on with each other.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
A couple of weeks ago where I was trying to understand the self assembly of a nanoscale transition metal cluster using cryospray mass spectrometry – it was amazing since it worked. When I come into the lab normally my group dive for cover…
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
I would take Ben Okri’s The Famished Road – it’s an amazing book – I have read it many times and it is so rich I think I would never get bored of reading it. I am not sure what CD to take – maybe one that is reflective enough so I could signal to a passing vessel and get rescued from the island? If I had batteries or a solar panel for the CD player maybe I would take some Coldplay or some Philip Glass depending on my mood.
Lee Cronin is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow and works on the design and assembly of complex functional molecules and materials and has interests in inorganic clusters, ligand design, complexity and emergence in chemistry.