Reactions – Joe Sweeney


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Hard to be sure, but probably a visceral fascination with order, geometry, complexity and symmetry. Only chemistry allows the curious observer to examine all of these things and then to use what they learn to make new molecules which haven’t ever existed. Chemistry is the science of synthesis, the most creative powerhouse of all the disciplines.

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

Attacking midfielder/captain, Liverpool FC. Being a fellow Huyton boy, Stevie Gerrard’s job’s the one for me. Oh: we’re talking about ‘real’ jobs? In that case, probably an author. I’d guess almost all scientists love writing papers, lectures, and articles: crafting a piece of writing, choosing the best, succinct, weighty but pithy phrase demands a precision which is immensely satisfying (surpassed only by certain watchings of LFC). So, professional writing would be a real treat; and I’d take on fiction and non-fiction with equal relish. Fiction? Plays, short and long stories. Non-fiction: football, politics and history (scientific and other).

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

When we talk about making life better for people, only democracy has contributed more than science, and chemists have made thousands of discoveries which have directly benefitted ‘ordinary’ people. If we continue to innovate with the pace of the last 200-odd years, we will directly benefit society by making and using new molecular structures not only to help people through difficulties (chemotherapy, amongst others) but also by making everyday life far more comfortable and enjoyable (iPods, mobiles, PSPs and the like). If we continue to create and implement useful inventions, whilst also keeping society properly informed about the significance and value of what we do, we’ll make life better, don’t worry about that.

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

George Orwell. If you have to ask why, you need to get out more. OK, if you push me, because: (a) he was the greatest writer of his generation, (b) everything he wrote was (sooner or later) true and, © he was brave enough to physically take part in a distant struggle because of his principles. An erudite and true hero. If George Orwell’s demise was too recent to register him as a historical figure, then Isaac Newton. Because he was Newton. Anyone who stuck a bodkin into his own eye socket just to further his study of optics is alright by me. If Isaac’s busy with an alchemy committee meeting, Shankly, Paisley, Busby, Stein…..

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

Hmmm. About seven years ago. It was an asymmetric aza-Darzens reaction, which we had developed as a method to make enantiomerically-pure aziridines (pretty useful chemicals). As I recall, I was complaining to a guy called Andy McLaren about the yield of his reaction and he challenged me to do better: so I did the reaction, with all my research group watching me like vultures and throwing abuse my way. And I did get a better yield – by 1%. Ha!

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

Science is an intrinsically socialist (lower case) occupation: the collective is more important that the individual, and the system is only as successful as its weakest link. Not for nothing did Newton talk about the “shoulders of giants”. Moreover, for someone from my social background, knowledge and learning was a religion, the means by which you could make sure you did something useful with your life. So, I choose a Manic Street Preachers CD, almost for a single line: “Libraries gave us Power; then Work came and made us Free”. Eleven words which completely encapsulate the true ethos of science and give a perfect Design for Life. Even typing the words raises the hairs on my neck and brings tears to my eyes. I find it impossible to choose a ‘best’ book; notwithstanding the comments re. Orwell as dinner guest, the one which comes into my mind now is “Anna Karenin” (Tolstoy).

Professor Joe Sweeney is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Reading and works on the design and implementation of new processes in organic chemistry, with a focus on asymmetric and target-oriented synthesis, and chemical biology. His ultimate objective is to actually make a difference.

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