Where did you get your interest in this branch of science, why are you a chemist?
I became a chemist for different reasons but mostly because when I was ten my father bought me the book Moje laboratorium/ My Laboratory. It was then that I conducted the first ever experiment in my life. I ‘acquired’ slaked lime from a building site and extracted the sal ammoniac from a battery and discovered that it gave off ammonia. That interested me so much that I decided, despite being interested in biology (specifically entomology), that chemistry is a bit more tangible and we don’t have to wait as long for the results of experiments as you do in biology. Biological phenomena require much more time, even in the case of organisms which develop quickly such as insects, so chemistry seemed more interesting to me.
You have talked about your interest in experiments and your attitude to experiments but, on the other hand, you have changed specialisation over the years, maybe because there are many exciting things to be said about theoretical chemistry.
It happened out of contrariness – of course, I really liked experiments because as you know then things happen, something changes. At the beginning I had trouble with the theory, starting with simple calculations of the concentration of chemical solutions in primary or secondary school and finishing on the basics of quantum mechanics. I decided I wasn’t that stupid after all and that I would learn it. Once I’d learnt it, I discovered again that theoretical chemistry leaves much more room for manoeuvre and is less restricted than experimental chemistry. When I was studying in the 1980s, the problem was getting the simplest chemicals. Earlier at home, the problem had been getting the chemicals I needed which were quite rightly considered too dangerous for a teenager (sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid etc.). By contrast, all you need for theoretical chemistry is a piece of paper, a pencil and your own head. Of course now you have to use a computer to do anything. As far as these two areas coming together is concerned, the theory and the experimental, it is at the moment a total fusion. Classical chemistry, the experimental, is a material science. I remember that one outstanding 19th century German organic chemist regarded the creation of any model at all as abuse and in his, actually excellent, handbook on organic chemistry, excellent of course for the times, he did not use words like ‘atom’ or ‘molecule’ even once, as he considered this abuse. He believed that you could only describe what you could actually see. For the interpretation of events, theoretical models are indispensable. Nowadays, theoretical models are not about drawing a molecule, or a semi-structural formula for example, on a piece of paper, which would have been enough until recently. We have to do serious calculations which require a large number of resources to be able to predict anything. At this very moment, theory and experiment are fusing. One example would be the design of medication. Until quite recently, to do anything at all, to propose a compound, you had to research hundreds of compounds, which meant chemical synthesis, even the basic checking of cleanliness, which meant tonnes of chemicals and solvents, weeks of man hours, 99% ruined. It’s not like that now when one tap on a keyboard or one click of a mouse shows up a compound, but out of the hundreds of possible options, or hundreds of thousands, only about 10% are left to be actually researched. For Exxon, for example, it really pays off to employ theoreticians to check the heat of combustion for a given mix of fuels or how it behaves during combustion, rather than to carry out tests. Of course you can’t be 100% sure that your results will match the reality, all theoretical models are inexact, but it does give you an idea. It’s always better to know even just a little than to know nothing.
What type of molecules do you model in your laboratory?
I model biological macromolecules. There are three basic classes: proteins, which I worked on exclusively until recently, nucleic acids and polysaccharides. Proteins are the most rewarding to work with, but also the most difficult because every protein must have a structure if it’s going to function. However, this is not, as you might think, an invariable structure like the structure of crystal but more of a dynamic one. Finding the structure of such protein is still an art-form, or more like a handicraft. Cost doesn’t even enter into it. The art lies in cloning the protein, the art lies in making it measurable with experimental techniques, the art lies in the interpretation of the results of the measurements. A great deal of weight is put on the theoretical prediction of protein structure. The first method is based on databases, so we more or less look at what is similar to a given sequence of protein, to the amino-acid composition of protein in the database, and on the strength of this estimate that the protein in question might have such and such a structure. The second methods are based on physics. The principle is simple – protein must have one structure which is the most stable. However easy it seems in theory, you have to have two things in order to find the algorithm which defines this structure. You have to have the energy function, i.e. you have to know how probable a given structure is, you also have to find all the geometric possibilities of the protein.
You represent theoretical chemistry and you recalled the fundamental problems faced by anyone interested in chemistry when it comes to access to chemicals. After twenty-five years of trying to catch up with the west, is it still easy to be a theorist in this country and, as in other domains, to refer to the achievements of mathematicians and theoretical physicists, or is there are a green light for the practical chemist?
We have always had excellent mathematicians here and have never had to catch up with the west, you only have to name Stefan Banach and the Polish School of Mathematics. The experimental sciences require a lot of funding but you can’t demonise this. When it comes to the synthesis of peptides, for example, our faculty stood just as tall as it did in the previous era. There the expenditure wasn’t that terrible and there was no need for expensive apparatus and automatic synthesisers were just taking off. At that time we were working with more or less the same techniques here and in the west. Now it seems that maybe we’re not as much catching up as able to conduct experimental research at a similar level. Much has been said about the state of Polish science and I’m not going to say it again. I will just repeat the key phrase that we have to change the structure which at this moment is still rather archaic. This won’t be changed right away, they expected that ‘automatic west’ in Argentina and after the changes it turned out that they were a few levels worse than us. One of my colleagues told me about this during a placement. All the professors were made redundant and were only re-employed on the basis of current activity. Everything fell apart. That’s not the way to do it. All the same, our structure has to change at some point, there are more and more professors and doctors with habilitation in our faculties and the fewest MAs – it’s an inverted pyramid. The lack of assistants is becoming apparent when they should be in the majority.
Theoretical physicists have admitted in conversation that they work a little like writers, under the influence of inspiration and ideas. They devote themselves to thinking eighteen hours a day, and when there are no ideas, their work day is completely different. Does the theoretical chemist also work under the influence of inspiration?
If a good idea does appear, you can’t hang around because it will disappear. So you really do spend all your time working on it. And you have to decide what to do for a good idea to come about and that doesn’t just happen by itself. Newton’s Laws wouldn’t exist without the earlier work of generations and generations of astronomers, starting with the Sumerians and ending with Kepler and Copernicus. Newton synthesised all the knowledge about the movement of bodies that was available at the time. But if he hadn’t had this fundament or his own reflection, if he hadn’t learnt all that, then there would certainly never have been any law of universal gravitation. Basically the fact that you’re working by fits and starts concerns all scientists. In my case, as a theoretician, and I don’t know about others, the work mainly consists of writing computer programmes and battling with code. That’s one part that involves skilled work, although writing programmes has always been fun for me. The other thing that I really don’t like is writing, meaning publications, grant applications or reviews. If someone else reviews your work, then you have put yourself through this service to the community, you can’t get out of it. There have been months where I’ve had ten reviews and a few publications to write, and it’s not easy. Apart from that there’s the administrative work. We still haven’t reached the situation that exists in the west that a project leader can’t touch any money but can only issue instructions on how he wants it spent, he’s not even allowed to do the accounts. Here the grant leader still has to do everything himself. It’s that few percent which is such fun, but unfortunately the majority is the skilled work and all the necessary paperwork.
What do you do in your spare time?
My hobby is learning foreign languages and I’ve lately taken up Korean, for example. Apart from that, it’s reading books – I don’t have time for anything else. I have a daughter who is now twelve, whose learning has to be monitored closely and who obviously has thousands of questions. I take this teaching work as seriously as I do my work at the university. My daughter said recently that she sympathises with my students. My English and Russian are fluent, my Polish too, I hope. I can get by in German, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese and Hungarian.
Interview: Krzysztof Klinkosz
Photography: Piotr Pędziszewski