Curious George

An interview with world's most-cited chemist Prof. George Whitesides.

October 27, 2007 21:07
Curious George

george 88. (photo credit: )


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A Renaissance man who is an expert in fields running from chemistry and nanotechnology to materials science and molecular biology, Prof. George M. Whitesides naturally learns from everything. He is not only the world's most-quoted chemist (his article Formulation of Monolayer Films by the Spontaneous Assembly of Organic Thiols from a Solution onto Gold alone has been cited over 1,400 times), but also reportedly the most-cited scientist in any discipline. Thus while floating in the Dead Sea and slathering himself with mud during a break in the Second International Symposium on Bio-Inspired Engineering earlier this month, Whitesides was undoubtedly thinking of the principles of buoyancy, the mineral composition of water and earth, and how they might benefit mankind. He was invited to attend the conference at the Dead Sea - along with some 150 other scientists, businessmen and hi-tech experts from Israel and abroad - by Prof. Ehud Keinan, president of the International Forum of Bio-Inspired Engineering and a leading chemist and nanotechnology expert at the Technion Institute in Haifa. The symposium will be followed up in 2009 in Taiwan. Keinan noted that the symposium reflected "the rapidly growing activity at the interfaces between the molecular life sciences and the engineering disciplines. This trend is manifested by two intellectual paradigms. One aims at new biological/biomedical functions and structures by modification and re-design of the natural systems. The second paradigm targets new materials and processes in non-biological environments. In recent years, this interdisciplinary activity has created new strategies in drug discovery and innovative biomedical devices, and new materials, including nano-materials, catalysts, electronic, magnetic and photonic devices, molecular machines and molecular computing devices." WHAT IS chemistry, he rhetorically asked the participants at the end of the symposium. "I think you'll all agree that chemistry is the common denominator of everything that went on in this room in the past two-and-a-half days. Yet it is remarkable that there wasn't a single lecture or a single poster that can be regarded as chemistry in the traditional way. The symposium reflects the amazing, two-way traffic of information on the main road between the biological sciences and the technological sciences. This extremely busy highway, which involves so much imagination and creativity, is called chemistry." There is something unique about chemistry, Keinan concluded, "that makes it the center of the scientific universe: it is sufficiently rigorous to deal seriously with scientific problems, and still sufficiently practical to fit the dictum of Albert Einstein: 'Make it as simple as possible - but not too simple to be wrong.' I remember that in various occasions in the past, George [Whitesides] ... has expressed his concerns that chemists tend to be reductionists, focusing on narrow aspects of big problems, and become sort of molecular technicians who leave scientific leadership to others. I think that what went on in this room proves that this opinion is no longer true." Whitesides pays so much attention to the phenomena he observes with his naked eye or advanced microscopes that a few years ago he published with photographer Felice Frankel a book called On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science. The stunning collection of nearly five dozen photos took a close look at mundane objects like a spider's web, the pattern of wine on a glass, rusted metal, oil floating on water, or intriguing things like Shakespeare's smudged signature (which he dated by the rate of migration of iron in the ink). A scientist must have a sensitive soul if he pays attention to details like this. HE WAS BORN in Louisville, Kentucky 68 years ago, and some of his character must have been genetically transmitted. "My father was a chemical engineer and entrepreneur at the height of the Depression," he told The Jerusalem Post after the symposium ended. "He survived by making materials that repaired concrete and kept rope from rotting. He put material on bowling pins to keep them from being damaged by bowling balls. As a teenager, I was a lab technician, and learned how to keep a neat lab notebook." His brother Tom Whitesides is also a chemist, now working at Eastman Kodak developing electronic paper and books. George and his wife, Barbara - a former professor of English and now editor who is interested in teaching Arabic to US children, have two sons: George T. Whitesides is the executive director of the National Space Society, a small foundation that aims to promote the commercialization of space. Ben Whitesides is the lead singer and songwriter of The Joggers, a rock band based in Portland, Oregon. "He's figuring out whether he can make a living from it," his father commented. Asked about the origin of his unusual surname, Whitesides said: "I'm not sure where it comes from, but if one goes to Edinburgh, Scotland, there are quite a few. The first one probably lived in a house with white sides." In any case, as a teenager, George M. attended the Andover prep school far from Louisville and then went on to Harvard and the California Institute of Technology. He worked for half his career (1963 to 1982) at MIT, and the other half (1982-2004) at Harvard. He and his Whitesides Research Group of some 40 researchers (including one Israeli) work in biochemistry, materials science, catalysis and physical organic chemistry. Having published more than 900 professional articles, he is a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others. He is also the recipient of the American Chemical Society's esteemed Priestley Medal; at the ceremony, he was called a "legend in chemistry" by ACS president Catherine Hunt. "Tonight, I have the distinct honor of introducing a legend in chemistry. In all fairness, I should say a legend in physical and organic chemistry, materials science, biophysics, bioorganic chemistry, biotechnology, surface science, self-assembly, nanotechnology, microfluidics … Well, anyway, you get the idea. George's contributions are encyclopedic." THE MEDAL, its famous recipient said in the interview, "is an end-of-career award. You don't get it when you're young. You get it for your long contribution to chemistry. It's always nice to have colleagues scratch your back, but I don't consider this the end of my career. My team and I work a lot with biology, information in biology, robotics and origin of life." While lecture topics such as "A Phospho-counting Switch for Sequential Activation of a Checkpoint Kinase Cascade" or "Building Software and Hardware for Genomes: Polydactyl Zinc Finger Proteins" might leave a layman scratching his head, Whitesides found the Dead Sea symposium exhilarating. "It was a look at how nature does its business, such as considering how worms move as a possible improvement on robotics. You ask what principles are in their design. Maybe they can provide new solutions or models for new problems that are not biological," he explained. "There are a lot of applications in drug design, new ways to make antibiotics and possible targets for therapies for a variety of diseases. Whitesides warmly praises Israeli colleagues. "They are good at science, and some - like Prof. Ada Yonath at the Weizmann Institute and Prof. Ehud Gazit of Tel Aviv University to name only two - are really world class. It's interesting that science is a part of some cultures and not a part of others. In our countries, society looks to science and technology to solve problems. But there are countries where the creation of knowledge is not part of the culture. I don't understand why." He added that in both the US and Israel, "part of their strength in science comes from national security concerns. It's hard to see how totalitarian regimes would do this well. Part of science is the questioning of authority, absolute freedom of ideology. The Soviets did some very good science, but when science ran into ideology, it had trouble. Science flourishes best in a democracy. The scientific system in China is still a work in progress. They are investing, and I think the Chinese will be extremely good. They have four times as many people as the US, but only a fifth of the water supply, and the water is not necessarily where the people are. So they have a big problem. Nanotechnology will be a very important part of that story." NANO SCIENCE is the future of science, he suggests, sounding like the character in The Graduate who said plastics was the next big thing. The biggest application of nanotechnology, he adds, "will be in catalysts for energy production, pores for cleaning water and creating commodities. There are also applications in human health, with little particles in blood vessels delivering drugs or enhancing contrast in imaging." Nano-Terra, one of the privately held research and development companies Whitesides co-founded, has licenses for more than 50 issued and pending patents. Nano-Terra's nanoscale molecular methods can be used to fabricate advanced materials and devices that enhance existing products or create entirely new products in a broad range of areas, including smart materials and surfaces; flexible electronics such as displays and electronic packaging; fuel cells, batteries and solar-powered devices; sensors; industrial products and processes; and a wide range of consumer goods. "I do a lot of work in startups, mostly in bio-tech and bio-medicine. Nano-Terra, with a starting staff of 20 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will manufacture small things, nanoscale to microscale, using soft lithography, moulding and stamping. It's making new structures. But the process of applying something that works very well in the lab to industry and creating jobs is very complicated." He worries that too few young Americans are going into science. "Capitalism is a wonderful economic engine, but it assigns little value to long-term projects or societal problems. We will have to figure out a mechanism to help the weak sectors. "Science," concludes Whitesides, "has the potential to solve all kinds of problems, but it depends on what a society wants to accomplish. There is unequal distribution of benefits among a population. There is Darfur. And there are still big differences in lifespan. There are people who have clean water and those who don't. Societies have to figure out how to use resources while ironing out such disparities. "If lots of people are unhappy, there won't be peace. Mischief will be done."

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