1. What made you want to be a chemist?
Undergraduate lectures in organic chemistry. But after a stint in a physical organic lab making inhalation anesthetics for an undergraduate research project, I made a molecule which my spectra indicated was pure, but which they told me killed small mammals. That dampened my interest in organic synthesis. So I started looking at physical chemistry, and atmospheric chemistry caught my interest. I was (and still am) excited by the fact that fundamental physical chemistry in labs and in the field can be applied to large-scale environmental questions, in collaboration with inter-disciplinary teams including biologists, geologists, climate modellers, atmospheric scientists, analytical chemists, and ecologists.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
The answer always changes. If you’d asked awhile back, I’d say anything from a family doctor to an author to a cultural theorist. Right now, I’d like to be an artist, exploring frontiers between art and science. New technology is opening up amazing opportunities here. For example, myself, a choreographer, a team of dancers, a musician, and a graphics programmer have spawned something called danceroom Spectroscopy (dS), maybe the first fusion of interactive quantum molecular dynamics with dance. dS uses 3d imaging to interpret people as energy fields, so they can wander through a quantum nano-liquid. As their ‘fields’ perturb the nano-dynamics in real-time, they can see and hear the results (actually they hear the vibrational spectra that arise as their fields perturb the dynamics). It’s non-equilibrium dynamics with people! And super fun!
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
Presently, my research is oriented toward understanding how non-equilibrium effects impact chemistry. Most of the models for describing chemistry are formulated in terms of chemical equilibrium, but life is an inherently non-equilibrium process. If we’re in equilibrium, we’re dead. So a fundamental question is the level of organization at which non-equilibrium phenomena emerge, and how nature manages and organizes it. It’s been known for a long time that non-equilibrium effects are important under very low-pressure gas phase conditions. With improvements in experimental techniques, theoretical frameworks, and computational power, lots of interesting results across several fields of chemistry is revealing non-equilibrium effects that crop up in biology, atmospheric chemistry, and condensed phases.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Probably I’d like to stick Jesus and the pope in the same room and see what Jesus made of events over the last couple thousand years. I wouldn’t say much – just watch, and make a recording. Failing that, Richard Feynmann would be a really interesting guy. Here’s somebody who grappled with having worked on the Manhattan project, who drew interaction diagrams on the side of his van, and who was known for being a good communicator… I’d also like to show him danceroom Spectroscopy, cause it uses his path integral equations of motion! Some of the older chemical physicists that I’ve spoken to, like George Schatz and Martin Karplus, met him.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Well, if you count writing computer programs and messing around with compilers and supercomputers as lab work, then I guess I’m still doing it. Or if you count building all the optical mounts and whatnot to run dS, then I guess I’m also still active. But if you mean getting my hands dirty with chemicals and gases, and things like that, I haven’t done much since my PhD, where I was charged with designing, constructing, and then using a massive photoreactor to study the kinetics of atmospheric oxidation processes.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
Jorge Luis Borges is a favorite author of mine. Most of his work toys with the idea of infinity in some guise – trying to manipulate it, identify it, quantify it, chase it, or characterize it. So I might settle on Labyrinths, a collection of his short stories. The individual stories might be short, but there’s a lot to think about in each one. For music, something that would work with the hot weather and keep spirits up when it’s lonely with no prospects – probably Catch a Fire by Bob Marley, amongst my favorite albums.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
I recently saw a seminar by Bartosz Grzybowski from Northwestern University. He seemed like an interesting guy…