1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I had a keen interest in science from early childhood, fired up by a memorable first visit to London’s Science Museum. Like many young lads I had a chemistry set, and I remember my Dad taking me to a supplier to supplement my basic stock of chemicals with more exotic compounds and reagents. In the sixth-form at school we were taught by a wild-haired Welshman with cracked spectacles, whose enthusiasm for chemistry was hugely infectious. I know at least three of our fifteen-strong class went on to do first and then higher degrees in chemistry; our schoolteacher was truly inspirational.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I would gladly go into graphic design. It is a subject that fascinates me; I can spend hours playing with the fantastic software now available. Decent graphics can play a very important role in scientific publishing; good artwork should be visually pleasing and informative. Inspired by the concept of dendrimer symmetry, my daughter recently produced a tailor-made cover image for one of my books, and I have contributed to the choice and production of several others.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
Most of my research group’s efforts at present concern what has been termed ‘optical binding’ – the astonishing discovery that light itself can produce and modify intermolecular and inter-particle forces. In a nutshell, this means that it is now possible to manipulate micro- and nano-particles into stable, non-contact assemblies, held together by light – rather like a scaled-up version of the atomic bonding in molecules. If it lives up to its current promise, this could progress into major advances in the field of nanofabrication.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
What a question! One of many in my A-list would be Michael Faraday who, despite significantly disadvantaged origins, rose to become world-renowned for his pioneering experiments and penetrating insights into chemistry, optics and electromagnetism. Lacking the pomposity that too often comes with fame, he would be fascinating and congenial company, I think.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Last year I visited St Andrews University with a colleague, and we were allowed hands-on experience of some highly sophisticated optical micromanipulation kit. That is the closest I have come to doing an experiment since undergraduate days. As a student I got on well in the labs, but although I enjoyed the physical chemistry, the organic experiments in particular I found quite scary. After electing for a third-year project in theory, there was no more practical to do. Letting me into a lab these days is probably quite risky.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
For the book, almost anything by Thomas Hardy – but for choice, A Pair of Blue Eyes – and for the music album, the exquisite The Mask and the Mirror by Loreena McKennitt. She has the voice of an angel, and her songs are heartachingly beautiful.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
I will choose Greg Scholes at Toronto; he is someone whose science I have the very highest regard for – and who is a very unassuming, modest individual. His views should be well worth hearing.