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| Human World on Mar 16, 2012

George Whitesides: The world that we live in is chemistry

EarthSky spoke with George Whitesides – perhaps the most influential chemist alive – about what it means to be a chemist today.

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 – post-doctoral 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.

Image Credit: Milosz1

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.

What are your thoughts on science as a solution to the difficult, global problems people face?

Many problems right now require science as part of the solution. Providing water and healthcare for the poor, lowering the cost of healthcare in the developed world and providing it in some fashion in the developing world, thinking about the atmosphere – all of these kinds of things require science, usually combinations in science.

But they also require that the solutions be politically acceptable and socially acceptable, and that the cost be right. What science and technology do – and the two are really indistinguishable – is to provide options to society. We come up with things that might be solutions. Then society has to figure out, do I like that solution? Do I want to pay for it? Do I like the consequences that might come from inevitable things that go slightly awry at the edges, and do I think the benefits are worth it?

The whole issue is a kind of dance between science doing its thing, economics doing its thing, politics doing its thing and all of them coming together ideally to make the world a better place.

“Soft robots,” robots without a hard skeleton, are something you’re doing research on. Tell us about it.

Robots are really, really interesting as a subject and as a kind of technology. The core problem with robotics is that there are circumstances in which doing a job can be too dangerous for a person. It could be impractical for a person to be in that circumstance. It could be too expensive to hire a person. The problem that needs to be done can be too complicated. An example, which is well established, is using robots to lift heavy panels in place in welding the body parts of an automobile.

Most of the robots that you see have been developed either as part of manufacturing or sometimes for applications where, for example, you would like to not have people defusing an explosive device. You would like to have a machine doing the defusing. Now, most of these robots are either made to look a little bit like animals or people, that is to say they are so-called “hard robots.” They have a skeleton and they have motors that run things that might be arms and legs. Or sometimes they have treads, but the treads are fused then to something that looks like an arm.

But if you think about the world around you, it’s full of creatures that are butterflies and worms and octopi and starfish. These are all creatures that don’t have a hard internal skeleton. They have some different structure that holds them together.

We’re very interested in putting together robots that are soft and look less like a dog and more like a starfish. The connection to chemistry is that is that these machines are not made out of metal and springs. They’re basically made out of rubber and elastomers and things like that, as is the original creature.

The trick here is to find ways of putting together the material science of elastomers in such a fashion that when properly actuated, you can get crawling and jumping and moving through holes that begin to look like these soft things that we live with in the world. We believe there will be a whole range of applications in these, to take two examples, surgery where you want to pick up soft things, to going through small holes in a collapsed building, which might be a disaster relief after an earthquake or something of that sort.

We’ve been discussing the usefulness of chemistry. What are some of its big, intellectual problems that fascinate you?

Let me take two examples. I’ll start with one that I think is one of the great intellectual problems of our time. And that is that if you look at yourself in the mirror, what you see is a person. The person is made up of skin, which is the outside, and all the internal organs that make it work. Each of these organs is made up of cells and we sort of know what a cell is.

It’s a little bag, basically, of what’s effectively a thin film of hydrocarbon, the hydrophobic effect showing up with lots of molecular machinery inside. And the molecular machinery is doing reactions. So life is a series of chemical reactions. If I look at a cell and I look at any given reaction, I know that reaction is not alive. But when I look at a cell, which is a collection of reactions which are not alive, the cell is alive.

How does that happen? I think the fair answer to that question is, we don’t know. But it’s just astonishing that one can take something, which is a series of chemical reactions which we sort of understand, put them together, and the network of chemical reactions then does something that we would have no way of predicting from the individual reactions.

The same kind of thing, incidentally, comes up in thinking. Because, when you think, specialized cells, neurons in the brain, do various chemical reactions, which we understand. The ions move around and molecules move across membranes and technically charges appear and disappear. That’s all neat. But out of that, somehow, comes Beethoven’s Ninth. And how does that happen?

This is one of these great existential questions. We are deeply interested in things that are alive. But we don’t actually know what alive means. And you might say, well, things that are alive, that’s the job of biologists. And, of course biologists are essential to understanding this. But the core question, the most important question to me is actually not a biological question. It’s a chemical question, which is how do those features that make something alive emerge from matter that doesn’t seem to be alive? How does it happen? We don’t know. So that’s a really wonderful question.

There’s another question of a smaller magnitude but the kind of thing that, as a scientist, I love to work on. I’ve always loved storms. I come from Kentucky, and one of the great excitements of summers in Kentucky was that there were fantastic thunderstorms with lightning and thunder and all the rest of that.

But what a thunderstorm is, is just thermal gradients. That is, it’s been going up and down because it’s colder upstairs than it is downstairs, carrying drops of water or water vapor. Out of that somehow comes enormous differences in electrical charge which produce the bolts of electricity called lightning.

How does that happen? We don’t actually know very well. So that is another example of a question that you get by looking around, and essentially everywhere that you look in the world, you just ask the question, why? Why is this stuff the way it is or why does something happen the way it happens? It’s an endlessly, endlessly interesting thing to think about.

Something you’ve spoken on recently is where the innovation, meaningful changes – and jobs – in chemistry will come from in the years ahead in the U.S. What’s happening?

The U.S. has had an absolutely splendid 50 or 60 year run in which it was the world’s innovator. But we now find ourselves in some economic difficulty with fewer jobs in the country, and the question is, is it because there are fewer needs? That can’t possibly be right, because we know we have problems such as how do we provide healthcare at lower costs? How do we manage carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and how do we think about global stewardship? How do we use fuel more efficiently? How do we make materials that are replacements for metals but lighter so that you don’t have to haul around as much automobile when you drive?

We’re in this, to me, odd situation that we have an enormous range of talent in the field of chemistry and science that is, in principle, poised to solve problems. Why is it we don’t have jobs?

A short-form answer is that the United States right now tends to emphasize the solution of problems that can be solved very quickly. And the solution to complicated scientific problems often takes a rather long period of time. So how do you put together a capitalist system that is very short-term focused with problems that require long-term solution?

If we look to the rising competitors, China and India being the big examples, we’re probably not going to be able to compete with them just on the work of individuals at the same wage rate. So in my view, one of the things we want to think about is how to encourage more innovation and the creation of more new jobs in the United States, technology that will solve the problem of low-cost healthcare or the problem of carbon dioxide from burning fuels.

That has to require, I think, cooperation between universities being more interested in those kinds of problems, the government providing incentives both directly to universities and directly to industry through changes in tax structure to make longer-term investments, making it financially more sensible to do that. And then industry understanding that it has important problems to solve with potentially large returns to its stakeholders and stockholders.

But it’s going to require a little bit of a change in its time horizon because problems like global stewardship cannot be solved in 12 months. We and many other people in the United States are working on trying to find ways of coupling more effectively people who want jobs, problems that need to be solved, and jobs that need to be created through renovation. It’s something the United States still does better than any other country. We just need to put it back on track now.

Listen to the 90-second and 8-minute EarthSky interviews with George Whitesides on what it means to be a chemist today (see top of page). For this and other free science interview podcasts, visit the subscribe page at EarthSky.org. This podcast is part of the Thanks To Chemistry series, produced in cooperation with the Chemical Heritage Foundation. EarthSky is a clear voice for science.

More in the Thanks to Chemistry series:

Robert Langer on targeted drug delivery for future medicine

Nina Fedoroff on science for global agricultural challenges

Joseph DeSimone on being an inventor