Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions – Darren Hamilton

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I wish I could answer with some inspiring tale of conducting clandestine experiments as a child, but that really was not the case. The British educational system imposed some serious constraints on 16-year olds when I was deciding on A-level subjects, and chemistry was one of the three I chose. By university I was pretty convinced that it was interesting, and by the end of my undergraduate days, with some research experiences under my belt, I was hooked. I still think it’s quite a privilege to be able to make a living designing and building new molecules. A few of my students appear to agree.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

In the US, where I’ve lived and worked for the past eight years, politicians are, in the main, an even more annoying breed than in the UK. Nothing seems to happen in Washington without the heavy involvement of lobbyists and their, principally corporate, backers. If I could dream up a job that I think is important, and while I’m at it dream up a new political structure that could support its existence, I’d delight in getting politicians to talk to real scientists about real science, and then act sensibly on what they’ve learned. The disdain in which science is held by the majority of politicians in this country, at least as revealed by their public pronouncements, is incredibly depressing and damaging. Politics and politicians are here to stay so a viable role in opening their minds, even a fraction, would be immensely rewarding.

3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?

I’ll be deeply unoriginal, and go with sustainability. There seems to me to be no more pressing issue for the current generation of chemists than finding ways to make the materials we need in a sustainable manner. I’ll go a step further and throw energy in too. The R&D budgets in these areas need to be orders of magnitude higher than at present. Chemists will be at the center of the required efforts to develop benign technologies for synthesis, and energy management.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

I grew up not far from Stonehenge and I remain, like many, fascinated by the place. So, while I don’t have an actual name, can I say “whomever it was who came up with the idea of erecting Stonehenge”. The place must have been someone’s idea, and they were able to initiate this astonishing construction project. Whomever this was could surely teach our current leaders some fascinating lessons, and I’d keep the information flowing by serving up hunks of my mother’s bread and butter pudding.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

Today. Call me a geek. I’m trying to prepare a relatively simple, symmetrical, diester. Results pending.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?

I’ll assume I’ll be there for a while, so I’d need a challenge. The most beautifully written, yet torturously plotted, book I’ve ever read is The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. The final line of the book made it clear to me that I hadn’t made complete sense of the preceding 800-odd pages, nor the relationships connecting the huge cast of characters. It’s an astonishing book, and would keep me busy for years. While I build a CD player. Or can I assume I have one already? Assuming I do have the requisite player, I’ll go with something quite new, but in many ways utterly timeless" “Rabbit Songs” by Hem. Never heard of it, have you?

Darren Hamilton is in the Department of Chemistry at Mount Holyoke College (Massachusetts, USA) and works on a variety of problems in the area of molecular recognition and supramolecular chemistry.

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