1. What made you want to be a chemist?
It’s a bit sad really, as I more or less followed my nose and ended up being a chemist – that being said I certainly do not regret it! I was in the maths/physics/chemistry line of things at school, so a BSc at university was the obvious route. After my first year I realized that I wasn’t a particularly gifted mathematician, and with an older brother and father both physicists the choice was clear – I had best become a chemist! I was really hooked by Michael Bruce’s organometallic chemistry course in my third year, and from then on my course was set.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
The “could” is a big part here – I would have happily been a 100-Test cricketer for Australia, although my talents on the cricket field have rarely seen me play much above fourth grade. A television commentator on the game would be a close run second!
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
I think the energy game has to be bit of a catch-all, with short term goals of CO2 capture, storage and activation leading to carbon recycling being huge challenges. Longer term, in an increasingly unstable global political and environmental climate we’d all better start looking at managing our carbon reserves. After all, fossil fuels are also our sources of raw materials for the chemical industry and it seems a shame to be burning such a useful resource and polluting the planet in one fell swoop. Sadly, unless we go nuclear on a major scale I can see little prospect of an alternative energy economy to carbon until we can master solar energy conversion.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Not an easy one, but like a few others I think I have to come down to Leonardo da Vinci. I would insist on dinner being served on a table stocked with plenty of beer mats and pens…after all, the very best ideas originate from discussions whilst being illustrated on beer mats!
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
If you asked my students, they might say, “When was the last time you ruined an experiment.” I’ve got a horrible habit of wanting to get my fingers wet in the lab, and my students have to be careful not to let me play too much when I see something exciting going on! My last genuinely new experiment was Friday afternoon – the synthesis of an acetylide complex from trans-RuCl2(dppe)2. Other than that, we were trying to rescue a batch of OsO2, formed inadvertently from ethanol reduction of 50g of OsO4 whilst trying to make the dodecacarbonyl. It’s rarely dull in the lab!
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
The CD is easy – any compilation of middle of the road rock ‘n’ roll. The book is a much harder choice, and of course would depend on how long I was expecting to be there! That being said, it’s time I did something about learning some French, so a decent language tuition book could be a good way to pass a few hours.
Paul Low is in the Department of Chemistry at Durham University, UK, and has interests in the synthesis of conjugated organic and organometallic compounds, and their electronic structures as a function of redox state.