Talking about Religion and Odourless Chemistry with Prof. Henry Schaefer

The keynote speaker at Techkriti ’17, Prof. Henry Schaefer is truly a scientist beyond compare. A computational chemist by profession, he is the Graham Purdue Professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia. Apart from being one of the most cited scientists in the world, his views about religion and it’s compatibility with science make him an extremely interesting conversationalist. Read on to find out what the Vox team chatted with him about.

VP : Could you please enlighten us a bit about computational chemistry?

HS : It’s chemistry without test tubes; odourless chemistry. You can study molecules that have never been made, you can study those which have been made but experimentally unavailable. I could have never have been a practical chemist, as my professor once prophesied.

VP : Of all the countries you’ve visited, and they are a lot, did you find anything particularly different about India and the way we approach a problem in the research environment?

HS : That’s a good question. I think there is in a difference in the following sense. In India the theoretical chemistry community is very rigorous, very theoretical, very mathematical. The theoretical chemists take on mathematics, and they are pretty good at it. There aren’t so many in betweens in the US.  Cultures also play an important role. Japan for example, is very disciplined, whereas in India, China, US things are more wide open. So they’re different. Theoretical chemistry is more or less the same, but different emphasis in different places. For example in France, there wasn’t much contribution to chemistry. They used to argue about questions no one cared about, but it has changed.

VP : On a lighter note, students sometimes find it difficult to maintain a balance between academics and extracurricular activities. Your achievements and your life story reveals that you enjoyed both of these facets to the fullest. Any advice you want to give us?

HS : You need a work life balance. Some people get it and others don’t. Some people work all the time and I think if you work all the time, you hurt your efficiency. You need to have something else in your life. Like the homecoming queen (as he refers to his wife), you need something else besides work. But you do need to work hard. Earlier, when I was at Berkeley, we used to work 80 hours a week. I had to get my research group to a level where they enjoyed each other’s company. Now I work only 50 hours a week. Once the research group starts to have its own identity, it’s not as hard.

VP : Was there a time when your research hit a dead end? How did you deal with such situations, if there were any.

HS : I never saw a dead end in theoretical chemistry, because when I started, things were so bad they could only get better. It was so bad that when I was trying to choose a research group, one of the professors I wanted to work for (once a theoretical chemist himself, now an experimentalist), said “No, I am not taking theoretical students anymore, they won’t be able to do anything bigger than Lithium Hydride. A diatomic molecule with four electrons.” So, the future was always very bright. And it’s been pretty steady, getting better and better.

VP : What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on?

HS : I am really excited about the project we are working on now. We are working on a molecule called cyclooctatetraene. (And then he asked us if we knew any chemistry at all, and thankfully we did) We seem to have coincidentally come across a completely different structure. The paper is almost ready with only a few computations to go, but apart from that, I am very excited about this.

VP : We found some very interesting references in your talk about Christianity and religion. It’s so rare among scientists. There is a general conception that science and religion are at odds. What is your take on this?

HS : Most of the great scientists were Christians. Historically, there has been some good faith. There are some atheists now, no doubt about that, but they are in the minority. Most scientists believe in God in some way. So I don’t think there is a conflict.

VP : But the concept of God itself, you can’t possibly say that it stands up to a scientific enquiry.

HS : Let me disagree with that a little bit. There is a particular type of science I am interested in, we might call that real time science. A hallmark of this is reproducibility. People read our paper and try to reproduce the results. Now if we do something great and it’s reproduced, we become famous. But if we do something that we thought was great and is wrong, well, that’s not good. So this was real time science. Now there is a completely different type of science, other than what we do, historical science. You know, we can’t reproduce extinction of the dinosaurs 70 million years ago. It happened once; it had something to do with an asteroid hitting the earth. So we have the idea but it’s not reproducible. The big bang, you wouldn’t want it to be reproducible. Similarly when we talk about the spiritual world, it’s ok to talk about both, the parts of it that are observable scientifically and the historical part. The historical part of Christianity is life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So I think that there is an analogy, between the way we think about the spiritual world and the way we think about the scientific world. In Christianity there is evidence, NOT proof, for the existence of God. And we have faith in science. We believe that mathematics is true. We believe the scientific method works. There are lot of things we believe. We believe in Coulomb’s law. These are all things we believe in based on evidence, and not proof. They are the axioms which cannot be proven but are true.

VP :  Can you tell us about what made your conviction so strong?

HS : I was always looking for something. I was always curious. I always believed that nature was orderly and comprehensible. I just had these ideas vaguely, though. I was searching for something. I wasn’t searching very diligently, but I was searching and eventually I was found by God.

VP : So do you have any message for us?

HS : Work hard, is all that comes to mind. And it was wonderful being here. I would say that you should interact more with these people who deliver you the talks. We all are here because we love students. So my message is that you walk up to them, ask questions and you’ll learn a lot. It’s a great opportunity. I’ve been asked to go to many other institutes, I was asked to go to deliver one in IIT Guwahati, in IIT Roorkee, these Techfests seem to like me (chuckles). There was some controversy during my initial visits, and I think they like that. I think they like the students to be thinking. And I think it’s good to question.

Interviewed by Aditya Jain, Shashank Gupta