1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I think I get my scientific leaning from my father, presumably a mix of genetics and his infuriating tendency, when I was young, to answer any question either with a ‘what do you think?’ or a demand for a numerical estimate. That I ended up in chemistry rather than another science, probably reflects the great mix of real world problems with opportunities for creativity.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I’m occasionally tempted to continue a family tradition of giving up science/engineering in favour of art; however, my early teen plan to become an architect would be a more grounded choice, and one that might provide me more satisfaction – though, I would probably try to squeeze in as many textures, shadows, and angles, as possible, using dynamic effects that change with time or conditions.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
Clearly there are many problems facing society that require technical solutions, particularly relating to sustainability and energy; the alternative is effectively a return to the dark ages or worse. Chemists have a pivotal role in developing the enabling molecules/materials and understanding. At the same time, it is important to recognize that directing research too tightly may not be the best strategy; pure, open-ended research is needed to create dramatic breakthroughs.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Aristotle, the father of natural philosophy, an eloquent speaker, an enquiring mind, not to mention a rich source of political and cultural perspective on our own world. I’m not sure about his cooking, however – perhaps Auguste Escoffier would be a better choice.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
About a month ago, looking at electrochemical impedance spectroscopy of what we call ‘structural supercapacitors’ – an invention based on multifunctional materials that simultaneously store energy and provide mechanical strength and rigidity.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
If I’m allowed to transfer two battered tapes of live performances of my uncle, John Bell, to CD, his songs would cheer me up immensely during any lonely moments. For my book I might take Heller’s Catch 22 – a favourite that improves with rereading – but I’d probably settle for a good ‘Learn Mandarin’ textbook. It would certainly keep me busy, and I love learning new things; the kanji would provide aesthetic pleasure, and Chinese might even be the world language by the time I get off the island.
Milo Shaffer is in the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College and works on the synthesis, modification, and application of nanotubes and nanorods.