1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I was interested from a very early age in science, and alternated as a boy between the telescope, microscope, chemistry set, and so on. (My wife would tell you I haven’t changed.) I suppose chemistry fit nicely in between biology (too vague for my tastes at the time) and physics (which was too austere). It had some rigor, but not too much. Of course, I loved reading literature from a very early age, too, but decided that it would be easier to have a library in my house than to have a lab.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I think I still would want to be some sort of research scientist. Finding things out that no one else knows, running real experiments where the outcome rides on your own skills and intuition – there’s nothing else like it for me. I could enjoy teaching, writing, or even managing an investment portfolio, but not as much as what I do now.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
The same way as other scientists do: by working at the top of their abilities, on the most unusual, far-reaching problems they have access to. I don’t want to propose any specific topics; that’s not how it works. Work on what excites you, and allow some time and space for blue-sky experiments. Getting the word out about what chemistry (and science in general) is would help, too, because most people (all these centuries later) still don’t really know.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Arrgh, that’s hard. No kings or politicians that I can think of, first off. Newton wasn’t too sociable, was he? More recently I’d have loved to have met Richard Feynman or Peter Medawar – actually, I’d love to have dinner with Freeman Dyson, and he’s still around! If I could tell them what we’re up to now, some of the natural philosophers of the 1700s would be a lot of fun. Outside of science, it might be Nabokov – James Joyce would probably have tried to borrow money off me.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Easy. When my company announced the closure of our research site, I went straight back to my lab and started setting up experiments for a fascinating side project I’d been working on. It was then or never, so while everyone else was packing up their offices, I was out there taking aliquots and mixing up buffers. I did the last one in January, and the next day the instrument I needed was mothballed. My next experiment will be (I hope) not long after I start my next job, wherever that is. I never want to lose access to the lab.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
I’ve never been able to answer these questions! I’m looking at a wall of books over my shoulder right now; how could I narrow down to one? I suppose I’d have to find the thickest anthology I could possibly carry – it would double as a flotation device. Literature, poetry, some math and logic problems – I don’t think they make one of those, actually. CDs are a less wrenching call – something by Bach, maybe, if I had to pick just one thing, although Steely Dan would be a contender.
Derek Lowe is a research chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. Despite nearly twenty years of trying, he has yet to put anything on the market, so if you’re looking for a reason for high drug costs, look no further.