Reactions – Stuart Cantrill

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[To celebrate the first issue, this week our very own Chief Editor answers the questions]

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Probably the fact that I found physics too boring and maths too easy — neither of which remains the case today. My first stint at university lasted a little less than 2 weeks; I went to do a Physics & Astrophysics degree at Birmingham and when I got there I discovered that I had made a terrible mistake. After a much-needed ‘year out’, during which there was actually very little ‘finding myself’ or indeed soul searching of any kind, I just plumped for one of the other two subjects I had studied at A-level… and the one I found most challenging was chemistry, and so that was that. I was hooked after the first day of class, when a certain (not-then-Sir) Fraser Stoddart ripped up the syllabus and instead of teaching us the basics of stereochemistry, told us all about Olympiadane and other interlocked molecules…

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

Maybe a chef — because that’s essentially chemistry, but you can eat the results. That being said, I’m far too fussy an eater so it probably wouldn’t go well. Obviously in an ideal world I would be a centre-forward playing for Manchester United, but there are many reasons why that never came to pass — mostly because I’m not all that good at football and I have dodgy knees… If I’m being realistic, let’s say an author — I’d quite like to write a book or two.

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

The next issue of Nature Chemistry, and to fame and fortune!

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

This is a tough one — and generally the answer I enjoy reading the most in other Reactions pieces. So, I’m going to cheat, as a few have, and host a dinner party with more than one guest. The first two guests I would invite are Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II — monarchs of England (and other associated lands at various stages). I’d just sit back and let these two remarkable women, who have ruled over this country in times that are roughly four centuries apart, compare notes on their experiences. Oh, and just because I probably won’t get to answer this question again, I’d have to invite along Douglas Adams — a fantastic author with an imagination that is out of this world and a sense of humour beyond compare.

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

Probably at Caltech in early 2003, and I bet it was a ring-closing metathesis reaction, but I can’t be 100% sure… it was also likely done in an NMR tube and led to an Angewandte paper if it’s the one I think it was.

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

Well, assuming I have the standard texts that one is allowed in situations like this, including the first print issue of Nature Chemistry, I’m afraid I’m going to have to cheat again on the book front. I first read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings aged 10, and I couldn’t not take my dog-eared copy with me. But, one of the best books I’ve read in recent times — and one I’m still getting my head around — is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. For reasons I won’t go into, I finished it while sitting in a deck chair outside a beach hut in Mexico as I watched the sun rise — and it just seemed like a wholly appropriate setting.

In terms of an album… hmm… ask me on a different day and I’m sure you’d get a different answer. So, I’m going to sort of cheat again… if I’m allowed one CD, I’m going to burn 18 different tracks on it… and it would likely contain some of the following: U2, R.E.M., James, New Order, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Manic Street Preachers, Snow Patrol, Nine Inch Nails — and, for those more thoughtful moments, a little bit of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart.

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

Robert Burns Woodward, but since he’s no longer with us, it might be difficult. Living chemists… how about: Barry Sharpless, George Whitesides and E J Corey.

Stuart Cantrill is the Chief Editor for Nature Chemistry.