1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I suppose the reason I opted to apply for chemistry at university was the idea that it was the ‘central’ science, somehow sitting in between biology and physics. I soon realised that viewing the natural sciences like this is in some ways rather limiting, but once I started it was too late! I actually found the degree very challenging — there was so much to learn both in theory and in practice — but after some initial difficulties I enjoyed it. I chose to study at UCL because at the open day I went to, Andrea Sella (@sellathechemist) gave a talk in which he blew up loads of things and that made quite an impression.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
Honestly, I don’t think I can call myself a chemist these days, at least not in front of other chemists. I got very interested in magnetism during my PhD, and I started to gravitate towards physics and statistical mechanics in particular. In that sense you can say that I chose to change jobs already! My two main spheres of interest as a teenager were football and music, and being either a footballer or a rockstar wouldn’t be bad, I guess. In moments of idle pensiveness I sometimes think I would like to be a writer, but deep down I think I would trade that all in to score a winning goal in the world cup final for Italy.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
Right now I am working with some colleagues on a long term editorial project focusing on the historical milestones that have defined the field of crystallography. It’s a field with a long and distinguished history and it really cuts across all the scientific disciplines. I’m hoping that once we publish it next year it will help raise awareness of its importance, especially to young aspiring scientists. I also deal with submissions in the fields of spintronics, magnetism and superconductivity at Nature Materials, but what that will lead to I couldn’t possibly say.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
There are tonnes of scientists I would like to meet, Ludwig Boltzmann in particular, but Julius Caesar would be hard to beat as a historical figure. He was so many things: a military commander, a politician (well, a dictator eventually, but let’s not split hairs), not to mention a writer and orator with a lasting legacy. I would just like to meet and get a feeling for the character of a figure of such towering importance. I would also ask him if the Gauls really drove him round the bend, like Asterix teaches us. And why not invite Cleopatra along too? That would be a great night out, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra!
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
That would be sometime in early 2010 in Uppsala, Sweden, where I was helping some colleagues measure the magnetic response of a laser beam shining off a thin magnetic film, a phenomenon known as the magneto-optic Kerr effect. We established that the magnetism of our films displayed all the hallmarks of being dimensionally confined, and we confirmed that I am a terrible experimentalist. I had very patient colleagues. If we’re talking about a chemistry experiment, then we would have to go back to 2003, in the last year of my degree: I tried very hard to synthesise crystals of a funny magnetic material called hydronium jarosite. Instead, I successfully made millions, if not billions, of really tiny particles of what goes by the generic name of ‘rust’. But I did make them in a really original and expensive way.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
I would have to go for one of those timeless books with a certain amount of depth to it, I suppose, something like War and Peace or Don Quixote. If I had some advance warning I was about to be shipped off to the island for ever, I would also make sure I learned the Inferno from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy by heart, like my grandfather does. As for the music album, I don’t think I would be too fussy. I always find that Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chili Peppers periodically ends up back on my stereo, so I think I would go for that.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
I often find that people don’t always appreciate how the tools that underpin analytical chemistry — spectroscopy and crystallography in particular – are used in all sorts of fields that aren’t immediately thought of as ‘chemistry’. So there are ‘chemists’ that work as restorers of fine art, others that work as solid-state physicists in disguise, and some that even brew beer for a living. I would like to see such people interviewed here. Also, three chemists I have fond memories of as great teachers and scientists at UCL are Andrea Sella, Willie Motherwell and Steve Bramwell.