1. What made you want to be a chemist?
When I was twelve years old, I reasoned that if I only knew what matter was made of, I would understand “Life, the Universe, and Everything”. Chemistry not only seemed to provide an answer to this big question but, luckily, the recipes to make fun explosives.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I guess being an artist would be an attractive alternative although I think I lack talent. Both the art that artists can create and the molecules that chemists can make, are truly novel.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
Chemistry is different from biology and physics in that it creates new things. Chemistry has changed the world with the invention of new molecules and reactions. Just consider antibiotics, the discovery of nuclear fission, the polymerase chain reaction, cracking or the industrial synthesis of ammonia. All these achievements and many others had a profound impact on the world. The next big challenge for chemists is just around the corner: Solving the energy problem of our planet!
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Emil Fischer, a master of chemical intuition and an organic synthesis genius. I wonder why and how he was so much ahead of his time.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
In 2004 I had a relatively small group, but was convinced a certain molecule would be a good catalyst. It was Easter Sunday; nobody was in the lab and so I made it myself. It involved a Grignard reaction and an acetalization. Unfortunately, the catalyst was pretty much inactive…
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
B.K.S. Iyengars’s “Light on Yoga” and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
Ben List is in the Department of Homogenous Catalysis at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany, and develops new concepts for catalysis.