1. What made you want to be a chemist?
Coming into contact with a brilliant chemistry teacher at pre-university class in school. Errol Fernando inspired not only me but generations of Sri Lankans, and later Pakistanis, who went on to various professions around the world. However, I am also delighted that chemistry is a subject rooted in the world from ancient times, i.e., reality would be closely connected with what chemists do. We can let our thoughts soar as high as we like, but at the end of the day, what we do with matter in all its forms has possibilities for good and bad, which also needs to be dwelt upon.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
A percussionist/drummer. I’ve enjoyed playing informally since childhood, probably because Sri Lanka has an excellent drum tradition going all the way from high classical to a knockabout with friends. Hitting things to get a sound out of them (no violence) is brilliant fun. Drumming has a great, rather primeval, way of connecting with people like nothing else I know. My dream was to play weekends while doing chemistry as the day job. Luckily, I’ve been doing something pretty close to that for the past decade.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
As mentioned under 1, our work as chemists directly impacts on the world at large, albeit in the hands of managers and corporations. In fact, the ‘white-hot revolution’ of yesteryear and the ‘knowledge-based economy’ of the present have a clear chemistry foundation in terms of new materials and processes. That is a positive contribution, at least at the point that chemists have control. However, we must also contribute positively by developing the tools for monitoring the final outcomes in an environmental/medical sense. Additionally, we must contribute by talking with the media in a transparent and understandable manner since they determine what the world sees and hears.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
The first woman prime minister in the world – Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The stunning originality of her accomplishment was perhaps not appreciated globally as it should have been. It was one of those instances where a small country showed the world the way. Also, she presided over Sri Lanka at a time which proved to set the course of the country up to the present time and beyond, with all the attendant sadness and broken dreams. There would be so much to ask her.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Two years ago, a friend and I tried to coax a fluorescence emission spectrum from a single polymer bead tagged with a molecular computational identification (MCID) tag with a common spectrometer in the room where I work to this day. This effort failed, but we were happy because we could get a result with 3 beads. A bit more tweaking or a slightly more specialized spectrometer, and we would be home and dry. Other experiments established MCID as a viable tagging technology for micrometric or smaller objects in large populations – a bit of molecular computing that could do widely useful things that silicon-based computers couldn’t do.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
Nihal Fernando’s ‘Sri Lanka-A Personal Odyssey’ (ISBN 9559236032) is a bittersweet photo-essay about this beautiful, but troubled, land. It reminds me of a wonderful past which hung on till not so long ago. Kevin Burke’s ‘If the cap fits’ is Irish fiddle playing at its raw and beautiful best. This music in all its forms has been a large part of my attraction for Northern Ireland. The format of the Irish music session, with its circle in a bar where punters and players are equal, appeals greatly. That feeling of elation/exhaustion at the end of a long non-stop session is also worth a lot.
AP de Silva is in the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast and works on molecular sensing, logic and computing.