1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I remember when about 15 years old being excited about a project on growing crystals and also going to the Royal Institution (London) to hear an inspiring lecture on photochemistry given by the late Professor George (Lord) Porter. Until then I hadn’t realised that you could do chemistry as a full-time job.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
Dream job: footballer (soccer player) down the left-wing. Other job: get more involved in politics (also on the left). Sadly the distribution of wealth/power in the world is still very unequal. Most positive democratic change in the 19th and 20th centuries would not have happened without people getting involved in progressive struggle.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
(a) Probably most/all chemists already contribute by advancing knowledge. Chemistry underpins so much of current science. Some obvious wider contributions to be made are: sustainable energy, solutions to disease (e.g. HIV, malaria, cancer), clean water and reducing pollution. In my field, fundamental materials chemistry is key to future breakthroughs in clean energy conversion and storage.
(b) Engage with the public (and popular media), promoting the importance of evidence/reason over superstition. To some, the word ‘chemical’ has become synonymous with poison. But Joe (and Josephine) Public should know that all matter, animal, vegetable or mineral, is made up of chemicals. They should imagine what it would be like without chemicals: no food or medicines; no TV or computers; no plastics or sex hormones. The list is endless. Indeed, without chemicals there would be no life!
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Charles Darwin – to find out how he got his big, powerful idea (of evolution by natural selection), and how he dealt with religious challengers. Outside science, Mahatma Gandhi – a remarkable man in the successful struggle against British imperial rule. Around the second world war, he was asked by a journalist what he thought of western civilisation. He replied: “I think it would be a good idea”.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Not sure if this counts, but since my research is largely computational chemistry, I still dabble in some simulations. I wasn’t very good at practical organic chemistry during my undergrad days at UCL (in the early 80’s). Last experiment in the lab: solid-state synthesis of spinel oxides (NiMn2O4) during my PhD.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
Fiction: the rich, dazzling “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marques. And a collection of 20th century poetry (W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, P. Neruda etc).
Non-fiction: “Unweaving the Rainbow” by Richard Dawkins; essential reading for conveying the beauty, wonder and excitement of science.
CD: The Smiths “The Queen is Dead” with the Morrissey/Marr classic track “There is a Light that Never Goes Out”. I can play it really loud and not disturb the neighbours! To make me laugh, I would also like the CD of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”, which ends appropriately with the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.
Saiful Islam is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bath, and works on aspects of solid-state materials chemistry with emphasis on atomic-scale modelling of new materials for fuel cells and lithium ion batteries.