Full Professor and Department Head, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
Raising the field’s profile… I may be naïve, and this is certainly controversial, but I think that sailing under a new flag such as “chemical measurement science” rather than “analytical science” could rid us of the false image of nitpickers and dry sticks that we sometimes bear and might again enthuse the young. What we do is extremely spectacular (measuring the presence of molecules at the ppt level or even below, identifying a complex wine by its chemical fingerprint, detecting upcoming illnesses in the preclinical stage…) but we are not selling it well enough. Some of our fellow chemists consider us a service technology, but our measurements and the progress this field has made are crucial. So, we have all the reasons to be proud and a thorough rebranding might be a way to give us back this proudness.
Biggest challenge facing the field? I don’t see challenges, only opportunities. It is for example often said the field is being threatened by the shrinking number of well-trained people. Well, let this be so, and let the routine tasks being carried out by retrained gym teachers and environmental biologists, and let the AI algorithms take over part of our jobs by making suggestions for the most adequate buffer solution or wading through pages and pages of results. This only just gives the analytical specialists more time to focus exclusively on the fun bits, the high-level tasks that require insight and ingenuity and give a maximum of job satisfaction.
Book for scientists? At the risk of immediately putting people off, I would like to recommend a mathematician’s biography: “The Man Who Loved Only Numbers,” which tells the story of Paul Erdös, a famous Hungarian mathematician. The book is not about his math, but about the exceptional way he conducted his research. Instead of working on his own themes and pursuing his own favorite ideas, he wandered through his field by going from collaboration to collaboration, continuously exploring new horizons and thus creating new challenges for himself. This obviously created a lot of great math, to the extent that all his co-authors eventually got referred to by the Erdös-number=1, and the people with whom they co-authored in turn got an Erdös-number=2, and so on. Today mathematicians all over the world are bragging to each other about how low their personal Erdös-number is. But foremost, all these collaborations made his life very rich, as it was full of friendships and new encounters.