George Whitesides: The World That We Live in Is Chemistry in EarthSky

Dr. George Whitesides

March 16, 2012 - Boston, MA

by Jorge Salazar

When you talk about important chemists today, George Whitesides’ name will come up. Dr. Whitesides is perhaps the most influential chemist alive, with more scientific citations in published work than anyone. He’s co-founded a dozen companies worth over 20 billion dollars. And behind his work is a desire to create simple solutions to difficult, common problems, such as low-cost health diagnostics for developing countries. George Whitesides talked about what it means to be a chemist today.This podcast is part of the Thanks to Chemistry series, produced in cooperation with the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Generous sponsorship support was provided by the BASF Corporation. Additional production support was provided by The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, DuPont, and ExxonMobil.

What inspired you to study chemistry, and what was the science community like when you were a young scientist in the ’50s and ’60s?

Chemistry is a really terrifically interesting area because it’s about the world that we can see and feel. If you’re curious, you want to know why leaves are green and why things are alive and why the paint on walls is white or red. And that’s what chemistry does. The original motivation was just that it was great fun to think about how the world worked.

In the ’50s and ’60s, when I started in that glacial time, chemistry had a pretty restricted view of what it did. That is, the purpose of chemistry was to make molecules, which are very small collections of atoms. Molecules are what make up air and drugs, and go into polymers and paint and gasoline and all of that kind of thing.

It’s gotten to be a lot more expansive. It’s now interested very broadly in the question of what life is and what materials are. It’s a wonderful area because it brings you into contact with almost anything that you see and feel and taste and smell and talk to.

How would you describe what it is you do as a chemist?

Science, and, in particular, chemistry, is intensely social. We all work in groups—postdoctoral students, the graduate students, and the students in my research group. What we do is to explore things that are interesting. The nice thing about being in the university is that you get to follow your curiosity pretty much anywhere you want.

A basic program is to find something that’s interesting to us from the point of view of curiosity, understand how it works, and see what it’s good for. Then in some cases, when we’re lucky, we might be able to spin out at the end something that would be a small business that would start transferring the benefits of knowledge into society in terms of solutions to problems.

I think chemistry has always been pretty tightly connected because, after all, drugs and paint and gasoline are things that everybody knows about—polymers. What might be a little bit different now is that it was the case that chemistry studied the molecules and then handed them to someone else who did something with them, who made them into gasoline or formulated the paint or tried to find something interesting and complicated and sexy to do with them.

Right now, what’s happened is that chemistry is moving to both make the molecules but also to make them by design to have a function. Of course what people are really interested in is the function. And, in fact, that’s what chemists are interested in. Making a molecule—that’s terrific. But what you really want is a molecule that does something. . . .

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