Reactions – Peter Cragg


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

It’s a genetically inherited condition – my father was one. When I was very young he would show me test tubes of different coloured solutions and I’d watch them change as he mixed them up. Then he would make bright pink solutions ‘disappear’ by adding colourless liquids. Who knew that acid-base chemistry could be so much fun! All this gave me a great interest – if not a great ability – in chemistry. After a degree from Nottingham, I ended up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama working in Jerry Atwood’s group. It was an outstanding training ground for supramolecular chemists and where I really felt the excitement of chemical research and discovery for the first time.

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

Fiction writer – though I doubt my family would appreciate trying to live off the proceeds. I have just started my second science book and enjoy the process enormously – but it would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to make complex molecules look good in two dimensions or hunt for appropriate papers to reference.

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

Clearly by doing what they do best – making discoveries at the molecular level which eventually make a positive impact upon everyone.

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

An alchemist – particularly one working in Rudolf II’s court in Prague. I’m fascinated by the split that occurred during the European Renaissance when analytical science emerged from alchemy/metallurgy and left the philosophical and mystical aspects behind. Paracelsus, however, would not be welcome at the table. Anyone who believes that “the true use of chemistry is to make medicines, not gold” has entirely missed the point of third stream funding in the modern university. Maybe, if I listened carefully enough, I could learn how to transmute base metals into gold and never have to write another grant proposal to fund my research. Actually, for those who are interested, the appendix to the 1709 edition of Wilson’s Chemistry contains a dozen ways to accomplish this feat.

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

I have some interesting, but unfunded, collaborations with colleagues who want samples of compounds, so a couple of days ago I cooked up a batch of oxacalix3arene from scratch and filtered it off yesterday. There is great satisfaction in knowing that I can still get things to work in the lab myself.

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

I ought to take Joyce’s Ulysses to read as I’m half way through right now but I doubt I’d enjoy rereading it too often. Perhaps C. P. Snow’s The New Men? No. Thomas Wharton’s Salamander – at its core is the creation of an ‘infinite book’ so it will keep me going for a while.

I’d listen to something live by the Grateful Dead (yes, that’s my tie dye T-shirt on the cover of January’s Dalton Transactions) but, as they played for hours without a break, it would be impossible to fit much on to a single CD. Instead I would load up my mp3 player with their complete four night run at the Fillmore West in 1969 and maybe some jazzier material from 1973. To fill up space I’d add some John Coltrane (the different takes of ‘India’ and ‘Spiritual’ from the Village Vanguard recordings) and a good version of J S Bach’s B minor mass played on appropriately ‘authentic’ instruments.

Peter Cragg is at the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Brighton and works on artificial transmembrane ion channels as part of a wider interest in the application of supramolecular chemistry to problems in the life sciences.

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