Interview with Eric Scerri

by David Bradley

Eric ScerriBiography:
Professor Eric Scerri, born 30th August 1953, Malta. Nominated for the Dexter Award in the History of Chemistry. Interested in the philosophy of chemistry, especially philosophical aspects of the periodic system and of quantum chemistry.

Position:
Assistant Professor, Bradley University, Illinois.

Major life events:
Gaining a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science at King's College, London on the Relationship of Chemistry to Quantum Mechanics. Being invited to the home of philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper for a discussion on quantum mechanics, chemistry, philosophy, life and the universe. Going to the US as a postdoctoral fellow in History and Philosophy of Science at Caltech. Becoming editor of Foundations of Chemistry.


How did you get your current job?
Job advert in Chemical and Engineering News.

What do you enjoy about your work?
Lecturing to students and generally interacting with people. Being paid to do what I enjoy the most, chemistry.

What do you hate about your industry?
The presence of large numbers of people who do no research, do not keep up with recent developments and pontificate endlessly about how "professional" they are.

What was your first experiment?
My first experiment while teaching was the fountain experiment.

Did it work?
No it did not. As anyone who has tried it will tell you, it's tricky. I made sure I got it to work the second time.

What was your chemistry teacher at school like?
Excellent, warm and inspiring. Both women: Mrs Davis and Mrs Walden at Walpole Grammar, Ealing, London. The school has now been demolished to make space for a housing estate.

Meeting Popper must have been a formative experience?
You bet! First, he got very angry with me because I had sent him an article in which I was criticising his views on the discovery of hafnium. According to him and many others Bohr predicted that hafnium should be a transition metal and not a rare earth and that led directly to the discovery of hafnium by Coster and von Hevesey. The full story is far more complicated as I and others have emphasised.

Popper in fact accepted my specific criticisms on the hafnium case. I think his initial anger was a sort of knee-jerk reaction, which he had to all critics. After about five minutes, he became a perfectly charming host and answered all my questions and made me feel like an equal even in purely philosophical matters.

What is your greatest strength?
Presentation of ideas in lectures. Being able to criticise arguments.

Weakness?
Sometimes over-critical.

What advice would you give a younger scientist?
Concentrate on mastering mathematical techniques. If the student ever wants to go into theory she will have to be a master of mathematical techniques. Chemical theory is very, very interesting.

What would you rather be if not a scientist?
A Jazz and Blues Musician.

In whose band?
In my own band! I have been playing since I was 16 or so.

Which scientist from history would you like to meet?
Linus Pauling

What would you ask him?
About the genesis of quantum chemistry and about the people he came into contact with during his postdoctoral stay in Germany. I think he had the deepest respect for them but was personally more interested in applications to chemistry than reaching a deep understanding of quantum physics. His own approach may have appeared a little too cavalier to the European purists. By his own admission Pauling was working with Bohr's old quantum theory when he first went to Europe only to be informed by Wolfgang Pauli that more sophisticated versions of quantum mechanics had been developed. Pauling immediately made the switch.

How has the Internet influenced what you do?
Enormously. First of all on a practical level I can find addresses, e-mails, phone numbers of anyone I care to with a little bit of searching. If I read an interesting article I can track down the author and ask them a question a few moments after first reading their ideas.

I should also point out that the Internet brings problems. A student recently wrote a paper for me on the history of the periodic table. He referred exclusively to material on the Internet. Most of the paper was filled with inaccuracies, complete mistakes etc. It was not the student's fault. The problem is that anyone can set up a beautifully illustrated web page without bothering about the academic content and cast it out on to the Web for unsuspecting students to find. There is of course no [peer] review process for what goes on to the Web.

Wasn't the student a bit naive to assume total credibility of unqualified sources?
Okay, you are right. He was not a brilliant student and he was lazy. Let's just say it is tempting for students to sit in their own rooms and surf the Web instead of getting their butts into the library.

Why do you think the public fears science?
Lack of knowledge of course and the hard-edged and clinical image portrayed by many scientists.

What are the ultimate goals for chemists?
I am a philosopher of chemistry and chemical educator. I cannot really answer this question which seems to be directed towards "real chemists". But do you really mean "ultimate goals"? If I were a theoretical chemist I would say to be able to calculate everything from first principles so that we would never need to do experiments and could pack up and go home. If I were a real chemist reaching such "ultimate goals" would not be much fun.

What will chemistry do in the next ten years?
Nor am I a fortune-teller.

You could speculate though...
Well, I really think computational chemistry and modelling will go on expanding as quickly as do developments in the computer industry. Chemists are going to have to get used to the idea that more and more "experiments" will be done on the computer. This should not imply however that quantum chemistry could explain everything in chemistry - that chemistry has been reduced. Far from it. It just means that computational chemistry can be used as a useful tool along with the various spectroscopic techniques, which have already revolutionised chemistry.

What invention would you like to wipe from history?
Chemical weaponry

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