1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I first became interested in chemistry in high school. I was fooling around at the back of the class and was made to sit at the front by one Mrs Davis. When I was forced to listen to the material in this way I realized that it was all rather logical and elegant. We were studying basic nomenclature of salts and valences of various ions. On going to college I initially wanted to study chemistry and physics jointly but quickly opted for chemistry, although I have always been drawn to the more physical, more theoretical aspects of chemistry. For me chemistry has just the right mix of visualisability, abstract thinking and mathematics.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
That’s an easy one! I would be a blues guitarist touring the world with a band of musicians. I have been playing this kind of music since I was in high school in London, the place where a blues revival took place in the late 60s and early 70s. I learned to play by copying the greats like BB King, Eric Clapton, Freddie King, Peter Green, Albert Collins and many others. In any case my exposure to public performance, while playing in various groups, helps me these days when I teach general chemistry classes of 350 students at UCLA. Anyone who has done this would agree that there is a strong element of ‘performance’ in keeping such classes interesting.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
I am not the best person to ask this question since I specialize in history and philosophy of chemistry and writing about chemistry. However from the perspective of my own specialty I think it is essential that chemists develop their writing and communication skills so as to be able to explain to lay-people about their work and that of other chemists. Much concern about chemistry and science in general, for example Darwin’s theory, seems to come from a lack of understanding of the real issues.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
I think it would be Dimitri Mendeleev, the person who is most strongly associated with the discovery of the periodic system. And it’s because I have spent a good deal of time thinking, researching and writing about the history and philosophical significance of this central icon of our science. Most recently I have published what I am pleased to say is being described as the definitive book on the periodic system. I include two chapters out of ten just on Mendeleev. The main thread running through the book is the relationship between chemistry and physics, such as the extent to which quantum mechanics explains the chemist’s periodic system or as they still call it in Russia, Mendeleev’s periodic system.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
I regularly do demonstrations in my large general chemistry lectures. Students seem to appreciate them and I think it serves to bring things down to earth given all the mathematical abstraction that chemistry students need to take on board in a modern general chemistry course. But as for full scale experiments, it was the preparation of a compound of europium back in London. After weeks of false starts, futile trips to the glassblowers and so on, I finally had the sample in hand but dropped it on the floor on the way out of a building. I decided at that moment that my strength lay in thinking and writing about chemistry rather than hands-on chemistry.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
I’ll talk about the CD first since that’s easy. I would take Fleetwood Mac’s, Live in Chicago. This was recorded back in the early 70s and features the exquisite electric guitar playing of Peter Green. Listen to the opening track on volume 1 called “Watch Out” and you will see what I mean. And just as a back up I would have to take one of the ‘Live Cream’ CD’s with the sheer magical improvisation of Clapton, Bruce and Baker.
As for a book, I might cheat a little and ask to have the whole of Encyclopedia Britannica. I love to learn new things and discover completely new areas of knowledge. But if really pressed to take one volume I think it would be Condon and Shortley’s book on Atomic Spectroscopy or Atkins’ Physical Chemistry.
Eric Scerri was educated in the UK and is now a continuing lecturer in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at UCLA where he has been for the past eight years. He teaches large general chemistry classes as well as courses in history and philosophy of science and has published widely in history and philosophy of chemistry as well as chemical education. He is the founder-editor of the journal ‘Foundations of Chemistry’ and has written a best-selling book called “The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance”, Oxford University Press, 2007.