Reactions – David Cahen

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

After realizing at an early age the problems I’d have becoming pope, pilot or ambassador (that is the chronological order in which I remember my aspirations), I must, around the age of 8–9, have become hooked on science (I distinctly remember trying to keep cutting my piece of cheese to get to an “atom” of cheese and this was before I started classical Greek…). In my first year of chemistry (10th grade) at a small provincial school I had a great teacher, Niels Wiedenhof, and out of the 8–10 science-oriented pupils that were taught by Wiedenhof that year, two became chemistry professors (the other is Theo van de Ven at McGill). Wiedenhof went on to work for Philips in public relations and then did the first ever Dutch Ph.D. on public understanding of science.

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

Geology and/or climatology, but I hope I would not work as hard as I do now so as to have plenty of time for my great second love, history, something I always was fascinated with (and it apparently runs in the family as my brother became a historian and nowadays directs the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam).

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

I can only reply looking through my alternative sustainable energy spectacles: Chemistry is at the centre of humankind’s largest ever challenge, securing a sustainable future for the world with humans, humans that can have a lifestyle that allows them to keep their great achievements in health, mobility and communication, that the past centuries have brought. Apart from what chemists do in the lab, they should teach and explain, to help educate as large a part of the population in terms of basic scientific concepts, to minimize the fear of science and optimize realism of expectations, leaving Doctor Who-like escapades to sci-fi.

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

Baruch de Spinoza. From what I have read (by others, like my nephew who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on him) I very much identify with his view of the world and god, but whenever I try to read the original, I get stuck. I want to ask him to explain his philosophy in his words, where I can stop him every time I get lost.

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

I pass thorugh the lab on my way to the office but, probably to the relief of students rarely intervene (interfere?) hands-on. Still, in 2003/4 when in Princeton working with my colleague Antoine Kahn, I prepared our samples for electron spectroscopy, to understand the electron energetic effects of molecular modifications of GaAs and, even if I say so myself, did pretty well. On a much smaller scale, a month or so ago, just passing through the lab, I figured out with a simple experiment why our low temperature electronic transport set-up was not functioning.

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

This is clearly an outdated formulation of the question. For the second part I assume that I will have a solar panel or small windmill to power my electronic device. Also, CD is out and it will be an MP3 player. Now, having an MP3 player, I can put books on it, can’t I?

Book: Mr. Mani, of A. B. Yehoshua; it has a strong historical aspect AND, much of it is written as half of a dialogue, which leaves the reader to make up the other half, something that can be done time and again, and never has to (and will be) the same.

CD; Orpheus and Euridice of Gluck, not only because it is divine music, but also because Gluck gave it a happy, rather than the mythological tragic, ending and I love happy endings (my family and students may claim, though, that it must be one of Tom Lehrer’s (remember his periodic table..)).

David Cahen is in the Department of Materials & Interfaces in the Faculty of Chemistry at the Weizmann Institute, and does research on understanding how molecules can control electronic transport, figure out basic limitations of this control, and search where are the possibilities for fundamentally novel science here, All this is done with special emphasis on the relevance for alternative, sustainable energy and, especially for new (and old) solar cells.