Reactions – Joshua Finkelstein

[In lieu of profiles, the contributors to this blog have decided to do their own Reactions pieces…]

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I was a bit of a ‘late bloomer’ when it came to chemistry: I didn’t own a chemistry set when I was growing up or run reactions in my garage. And I didn’t really enjoy high school chemistry classes (though I liked that feeling you get after successfully balancing a complex chemical reaction…) But I had an amazing AP chemistry teacher in high school, so I went into college with an open mind. When I got there, I was drawn to organic and biological chemistry: I thought it was so cool that a chemist could (design and) synthesize a biologically-active organic molecule that could be used to tease apart a complex cellular process or could be developed into a drug.

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

Like Andy, I probably would have been a musician – I play drums, jazz piano, various percussion instruments, and sing a bit. (I’m trying to learn how to play guitar, but don’t think my fingers are the right length/shape – or maybe I just need to practice more?) I played in a few bands in graduate school (which really helped keep my spirits up when my chemistry wasn’t working), and I miss the feeling you get when you’re playing music with close friends in a dirty/dusty basement…

3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?

The simple answer is to work on an important scientific problem that isn’t being adequately addressed by other chemists – easier said than done, though… I guess an important question to constantly ask is “why am I doing this experiment/project?” As long as you know the answer to that question, then you are probably “contributing to the world at large” – if you can’t think of a good/satisfying answer, maybe it’s time to change projects?

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

If I had to choose a scientist, I’d probably invite Linus Pauling or RB Woodward to dinner – I’d be interested in hearing what they think about all the things scientists have discovered in the last few decades. If I could choose any historical figure, I think I’d invite Oscar Wilde or John Coltrane – I imagine Wilde would be hilarious in person and I’d love to hear Coltrane talk about music and tell stories about the jazz scene in the 50s and 60s…

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

Several years ago – I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it involved DNA glycosylases…

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

I think I’d want to bring something I’d read before/knew I liked – so I’d probably go with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. As for music, I don’t think I could survive if I only had a single CD – does a mix CD count? If so, I’d burn one that had the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia, Beck’s Tropicalia, Life In A Glass House from Radiohead’s Amnesiac and/or Morning Bell from Radiohead’s Kid A, Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, and a few other tracks… (Thank goodness for iPods…)

Joshua Finkelstein is a Senior Editor for Nature and a regular contributor to the Sceptical Chymist.