Reactions – Alán Aspuru-Guzik

Alán Aspuru-Guzik is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, and works at the interface of theoretical physical chemistry and quantum information.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

My junior high school teacher in Mexico was an inspiration. He was a biochemist with a passion for the inner workings of proteins and enzymes. I later had the opportunity of representing Mexico at the International Chemistry Olympiad held in Oslo, Norway, in 1994. By then, I had a a tough choice between studying computer science or chemistry. The inclination for computer science, however, never faded away. For my Ph.D., I carried out large-scale computing using quantum Monte Carlo. During my postdoc years, I began working at the interface between quantum computation and chemistry, and this is still one of my current research topics as an independent faculty.

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

If I were not a scientist, I can imagine many other possible alter egos. On dreamy days, I see myself as a film maker, doing independent film, or as a (very) progressive politician.

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

I have a few projects going on in my lab at Harvard right now. At a first glance, they seem diverse, but all are at the interface between theoretical chemistry, quantum information, and renewable energies. We are interested in charge and excitation transport in photosynthetic systems and organic photovoltaic materials. For example, we are working together with IBM on the Clean Energy Project/World Community Grid: This is a distributed computing project using spare computer time from donors around the world to search for molecular crystals that transport excitations and charge as efficiently as possible. We hope that one day, our theoretical studies will lead to better organic solar cells and organic electronics applications.

In the field of quantum computing, we recently carried out the first quantum chemistry calculation of the hydrogen molecule using a prototype optical quantum computer together with the group of Andrew White (Queensland).

We also work in other places where quantum information and chemistry come together: the electronic structure of complex systems, such as molecules attached to plasmonic nanoparticles could be benefited by our work on density functional theory for open quantum systems.

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

I would have liked to meet with Isaac Newton. He was quite a character and a revolutionary scientist in his time. I recommend reading his great historical biography, Never at rest by Richard Westfall.

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

I am a theoretician, so you would expect it was quite a while ago! But you would be wrong. Two months ago, Ted Betley, one of my inorganic chemistry colleagues in my department, and myself conducted chemical experiments for a group of childen. Ted made sure that I, as a theoretician, was not working unsupervised!

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

I would probably take a complex recursive book, such as The Saragossa Manuscript by Jan Potocki or Don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes. As a music album, without a second of thinking about it, it would be Clandestino by Manu Chao. Clandestino is an album in which songs are linked together into one hour-long song that takes immigrants as its central theme and the tough life one may have if one is forced to live a clandestine existence. The songs are in many languages, and if you have not heard Manu Chao, you can get a taste by watching videos of him on YouTube.

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

I would like to see what Professor Takuzo Aida, from the University of Tokyo has to say. I just heard him talk at a light-harvesting conference in Bayreuth, Germany, and I became a fan of his work.