Reactions – Ben Davis

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

A sense of being able to explore the beauty of nature at its most fundamental level. That and parents who had a day-to-day approach to exploration and a cracking teacher when I was in the sixth form.

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

(Modern) art collector/curator – it evokes similar excitement and the same sense of yet-to-be discovered wonder and awe.

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

I think by taking on big questions, fundamental questions that have the potential to be translated. There is often a false opposition created regarding ‘blue skies’ and applied research. I’m personally interested in new knowledge (the real definition of science) no matter how obscure. It’s hard to know beforehand what might or might not be technologically useful.

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

I shall cheat and invite two people. Firstly, William Blake – he was a remarkable man who seems to have had a connection with life and the joy of life that was more keenly felt than most. He created this magical world; he had this fantastic walled garden in London and wandered and roamed through the city as a source of inspiration. His ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ gives you a glimpse of what he saw – ‘Jerusalem’ is majestic and still makes me weep. Even the illustrations in ‘Songs’, which despite being in some cases technically unrefined and even occasionally clumsy are something that one could stare at for hours on end.

The second guest would be Emil Fischer – he had such vision and almost a supernatural instinct for the interactions of biomolecules decades ahead of his time. Genuine chemical genius.

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

On the sly I’ve been fiddling with something that I call ‘sugar PCR’. It’s either deeply naïve or could be freakily fun. It’s a biocatalytic cascade based on thermal switching that could allow general amplification of minute quantities of glycans up to measurable levels. I like to give the group odd projects and so it’s rare that we have one that I play with first. However, this one is pretty speculative even for us and so I’m creeping in late at night and giving it a pop.

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

Book is easy – Shakespeare’s collected works including sonnets. It’s a cliché, but it really is true that therein lie the best descriptions of the human condition. We often take his talent too much for granted, probably through familiarity, but every time you pick any of his stuff up it strikes such a resonant chord. He knew people.

If I had to take just a single novel though, it would be Jane Eyre.

CD is tough. I’m obsessive about music, cycle with it on and usually itching to listen to new stuff. This means that picking just one is a bit odd. At the moment, something I keep coming back to is “Because of the Times”, Kings of Leon – genuinely heartfelt in an unashamed way. Having said that, if it was something that I had to listen to forever, then I’d pick “Heart and Soul” Joy Division – an 81 track collection masterpiece that would allow me to practice my Curtis-style dancing. All sing: “To the centre of the city in the night…”.

Ben Davis is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and works on the chemistry and chemical biology of sugars and proteins.