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Serendipity strokes discovery: A short portrait of Sir James Fraser Stoddart

The word „serendipity“ is probably not part of the active vocabulary of many non-native English speakers. Some call it "a posh variety of luck", but by definition it means “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for” – something that has led to many technological breakthroughs and is experienced by most scientists at one point or another, but not often openly acknowledged.
Not so by Sir James Fraser Stoddart. The 2016 Nobel Laureate Chemistry embraces the concept of serendipity in science because, as he says, “scientific discovery is not yet predictable”.
In an interview in 2007 for the UCLA USJ, he explained how he sees his chosen profession: “As a chemist, just as if you are an artist, you can create an object that no one has made before and then study it for its properties and functions.”
The objects he creates certainly look artistic: Three-dimensional complex structures of molecules that interlock which each other. What is so special about them is that they are not chemically bonded, but mechanically interlocked. Thus, the parts of these structures are able to move relatively to each other. In case of the “rotaxanes” developed by Sir Fraser Stoddart, a molecular ring is threaded on a thin molecular axle and can move along the axle.
But Stoddart not only saw the beauty of this scientific achievement, he thought out of the box: What does this look like? How can a structure like this be put to use? So he developed, among others, a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.
Other structures can also develop surprising properties when brought into interaction with each other. Sir Fraser Stoddart has over the years published a number of examples where surprising features have been created from mixtures of interacting molecules. Cyclodextrin-MOFs are one example where combining two components leads to a dramatic change in behavior. “The time has come for us to embrace complexity”, Sir Fraser Stoddart has been quoted – and he certainly is doing it.
This attitude, combined with an open mind and unconventional thinking “beyond the molecule” have led him not only to scientific honors, but he has also been the co-founder of a number of companies in such diverse fields as cosmetics and metal recovery.

Do you want to be inspired by Sir James Fraser Stoddart? Then come to the Opening Session of ACHEMA 2018 on Monday, 11. June 2018, 11 am, CongressCenter Messe Frankfurt!