The Satisfaction of Science

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"Do you like wearing pink ties?"

“Well this one is pink, but I had an orange one on yesterday,” said Mark Ratner, chair of the Department of Chemistry, Dumas University Professor of Chemistry and co-director of the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University. “Man, look at you, you’ve got purple on. Men can’t wear colors, the only thing they are allowed to wear are browns and grays. So I stick colors around my neck and my ankles. I’ve got yellow and gray on my ankles.”

Over the past eight weeks, I had the opportunity to get to know theoretical chemist, Mark Ratner. Also known as the father of molecular electronics and a world expert in all things nanoscience, being in the presence of someone so brilliant and accomplished can be a bit intimidating.

Nonetheless, he took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his life, fishing and his love for teaching. Last month, I published a profile on him. Through all of our time together I learned a great deal not only about him, but also about chemistry and the rewards of science.

According to Ratner there are two great satisfactions of science.  The first is when you understand something that has not been understood before. His favorite story of this kind is about a great physicist named Hans Bethe who he taught with at Cornell.

Bethe was interested in how the sun works. How is it that the nuclear fusion processes of the sun can produce the amount of radiation that it actually produces?

One day he calculated this model and worked out the answer to his question and he walked home.  His wife met him at the door and said you’re late today, did you have a good day? He took her by the hand, walked outside, looked at the sun and said now he knew how it works.

“Only once in the history of the human race will someone be able to say, he did it,” Ratner said. “I am never going to have a moment like that.”

The second great satisfaction is that these moments don’t come to Ratner, but that they come to him through one of his students.

“And that is even more fun because you are sharing with somebody,” Ratner said. “Teaching somebody and watching that somebody understand something, that is a great moment because being a chemist is just as much about the teaching as it is about the chemistry.”

I feel the same way about our job as writers.  We write for the satisfaction of sharing information and educating someone about a topic that excites us, or at least I do.

- blog by Sarah Plumridge, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

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