Photograph by Brian Finke
George Whitesides, 64, is the Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University. He is a Renaissance thinker whose ideas crisscross scientific disciplines and an outspoken critic who is fond of reminding scientists that they really understand very little. He believes that science is rapidly changing from separate studies of biology, chemistry, and physics to a new discipline that combines all three. Although he tries to confine his research to basic science, he holds many patents and has spun off companies, including several working on soft lithography, a method for building nanostuff.
Do you have a word for what you do?
W: I don’t have a word for it. We apply physical science to biology, we apply physics to materials science, we think about chemical principles in microfluidic devices. We are working in three or four areas. There is nanotech, where the thrust is to develop methods that enable people to make small structures easily. Then there are emergence, complexity, and self-assembly, the notion of complex systems putting themselves together and developing characteristic behaviors. This area of complexity is to me one of the big areas of science, whether the subject is the power breakdown on the East Coast or how a reactor works. The last area is tools for analyzing the cell, understanding how to control it.
So you’re a tinkerer?
W: Tinkerer is a funny word because it has in some sense an Edisonian quality, and an ideal project for our group is something in which we start with a question that’s fundamental science, such as: Where does lightning come from? And we try to understand it, and then find out how to apply it, and then build a prototype, and then do research engineering, and 10 years later there’s a start-up.
How did a chemist become an inventor?
W: Part of it is curiosity. Part of it is talking to all sorts of people, trying to consult in various areas. The chemistry is typically only a very small part.
The disciplines—biology, chemistry, physics—seem to be coalescing.
W: It is all beginning to come together. One issue at the university is that you have to have a set of courses that add up to a coherent whole. But the courses are taught along one set of axes, and research is being done along a completely different set of axes now. It is an interesting disconnect, and a big problem. What do I teach? I teach a general course on molecular biology for anyone who wants to know about molecular biology. At the end of the course you have a pretty good idea what’s going on. And then I teach another, more specialized course for chemists.
The place where this kind of education really goes on is with graduate students because when they eventually get jobs, it is in chemistry departments, and bioengineering departments, and chemical engineering departments, and biology departments—all over the map.
Some of them go to biotech companies . . .
W: Yes, although many students are not attracted to big companies these days. If you are in electronics you may still have to go to the big companies because the best possible talent is still in electronics and telecommunications. But in biotechnology there are still many interesting opportunities in start-ups.
Who is helping you?
W: The business of the lab is doing first experiments. And that requires a big group with a lot of skills, imaginative people. The graduate students are mostly chemists and materials scientists, with a few biologists; the postdoctoral students are everything—they’re electrical engineers, and chemical engineers, and physicists, and biologists, and M.D.-Ph.D.s.
Is a lot of time spent sitting around and chewing over things?
W: Particularly at the beginning of projects. Once something is started and the experiments are working, then that becomes, in a proper sense, more normal science, where one can proceed according to principles that are well understood. But the business of figuring out where to get a foothold in a new area can get pretty difficult. It requires a fair amount of intuition. It’s one place where someone older can make a contribution. I’ve seen a lot of projects start and fail and succeed and so on and so forth. Often you have some helpful instinct to bring to the story.
What do you mean by “complexity”?
W: Take the weather, or take air traffic control, or take electric power grids. They are complex systems with components that interact with one another. Things happen in these systems that we really, really do not understand.