Reactions: Waldemar Adam


Waldemar Adam is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Chemistry of the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus, and worked in physical organic chemistry on diverse topics: Radical and oxidation chemistry, photochemistry and bioluminescence.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Our ‘Mittelschule’ science and mathematics teacher (English also!) in Germany enamored me about the wonders of the ‘molecular world’ of chemistry. In postwar Germany we had no teaching lab, but our teacher set up a demonstration table and made me his assistant to help the day before with the experiments to be shown to the class. Surely you may appreciate what motivation a youngster derives from such a privilege. Chemistry became my hobby and fortunately I had the chance to make it my profession. Had you asked me whether I would choose chemistry again as my profession – by the way, this would be a revealing question to ask future ‘Reaction’ candidates – my reply would be an unconditional YES: Chemistry is my ‘bread and butter’ as well as my ‘joy and enlightenment’. Those are the lucky retirees, who make such a claim about their profession in their ‘Lebensabend’ phase!

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

Maybe hard to believe, but as a teenager I would have also liked to have become a historian. Again, we had a fascinating ‘Mittelschule’ teacher in history, who really entertained us by teaching about such illustrious personalities as Alexander the Great, Barbarossa, Bismarck, Cesar, Charlemagne, Charles V, Elizabeth I, Frederick the Great, Hannibal, Henry VIII, Maria Theresa, Napoleon Bonaparte, Peter the Great, and many more. Some of these were my heroes and I yearned to learn more about them. Be it as it may, I am grateful for having become a chemist rather than a historian.

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

The opening sentence identifies me as a ‘retiree’ since october 2002: No research lab, no grants, no students! What does a retiree do after having operated a research group of over forty students at a time, published with them 50–60 papers per year in the best chemistry journals, and trained flocks of excellent chemists for academia, industry and government? Well, I decided to relive my life by composing my life story titled ‘I, Me and Myself’! I am having a barrel of fun; it keeps me intellectually agile.

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

There are quite a few, it is hard to select just one. Confucius, the fascinating Chinese philosopher and inspiring teacher, would be one of these intellectual giants with whom I would love to dine and learn first-hand about his ‘mechanism of thought’, by that I mean what made him tick. His wise saying “The day you learn something new is a day worth living!” I have lived by throughout my academic career and is the motto during my ‘Lebensabend’.

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

What an embarrassing query! Hands-on experiments are for  an experimental scientist like myself a form of ‘chemotherapy’. Unfortunately, while running a large research group as I did for several decades one finds little time for ‘chemotherapy’. But I vividly remember an incident some decades ago helping a frustrated doctoral student crystallize the new cyclic peroxide he made. The trick was to dissolve most of the oily sample in a little hot solvent, decant the hot supernatant from the slimy residue, wrap the clear solution in aluminum foil and let it stand to cool slowly. A couple of hours later beautiful snow-white crystals had formed. My student was impressed and confessed that he was too afraid to heat the peroxide because it might decompose. Eureka, once more I lucked out!

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

This brainteaser I love because I have returned to live again in Puerto Rico, ‘island of enchantment’, its revered name. To answer, I must qualify that the appreciated reading material would depend on the phase of my life.

Were it in my formative period, I would appreciate something from the ‘Sturm und Drang’ era, my favorite Goethe’s ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ drama.  When we read this drama in class, our teacher – an elderly lady, conservative and most correct – voiced out loud the famous Berlichingen’s words …“Leck mich im Arsch” … For us teenagers it was a victorious moment.

Were it in my maturing academic period, I would appreciate the ‘Diary of Christopher Columbus’. His travel-log should help me to sail through the ‘world of molecules’ and discover new continents of structures.

Now in my ‘Lebensabend’ period, I would appreciate a set of essays by the Israeli humorist Ephraim Kishon, to cheer me up and entertain me.

As for a music album, I would treasure a collection of Louis Armstrong, alias Satchmo, especially his inspiring song “What a Wonderful World”.

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

May I suggest Ottorino De Lucchi, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Venice (Italy), the prototype of a remarkable ‘molecular artist’. Driven by his artistic appreciation of symmetry, he designs novel molecular structures and paints beautiful nature images. To have him reply to your ‘Reactions’ questions should be entertaining and revealing.