1. What made you want to be a chemist?
As an undergraduate I was majoring in chemistry for not very good reasons when I starting doing research with Prof. Aaron Wold at Brown University. He inspired me and my fellow students (many of whom are now professional chemists and leaders in their fields) with his encyclopedic knowledge of solid-state chemistry and his love of discovering new compounds and structures. It was my first glimpse of chemistry as a living science, and of the fun and the power of making new materials.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I’d have to go with professional baseball player, preferably with the Boston Red Sox or the Oakland A’s. But if excluded from that career or from the entertainment industry by my lack of talent, I would choose to work in education or public policy. I like teaching, and I think teaching science well at all levels is very important. The world is facing some big problems and choices in the areas of energy and climate change. This is really the greatest challenge of the next decade or two. Probably the most effective thing we can do about it as scientists is to communicate what we know.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
We have a number of projects related to solar energy, including solar water splitting and improving the ultilization of light by solar cells. We are part of a collaborative project on nano- and microscale motors that we hope will one day lead to robotic microsurgeons and other diverse applications. We are also working on the chemistry of layered materials, which are interesting for catalysis, electronics, and electrochemical energy storage.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Without singling any one out, I’d like to have dinner with the people who founded religions to see if any of them had an idea of the kind of trouble they were starting.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
My wife, who is not a chemist but brilliant in many ways, convinced me to take our recent sabbatical in Paris, and one of the wonderful things about that was being able to work in the lab until about 2 pm before the first distracting email arrived from the U.S. The last successful experiment I did there was in 2010, in collaboration with Mauricio Hoyos. We accidentally discovered the ultrasonic propulsion of microscopic metal ‘rockets’ in fluids and it has since turned into a very interesting project. I did some unsuccessful experiments with two other collaborators, Leila Boubekeur and Christian Amatore, trying to grow self-assembled monolayers on tungsten microwires. We still haven’t completely given up on that idea.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
I would like to have a practical book on how to build a sailboat from driftwood and palm fronds. For the music, is a double album OK? (e.g., George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’) If not, I’d choose ‘American Beauty’ (Grateful Dead) or ‘Down Home’ (Seals and Crofts). After 40 years I’m still not tired of listening to them.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
Three academic chemists whose careers are inspiring, and whose comments are always interesting, are John Goodenough, Allen Bard, and George Whitesides.