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“Ask-Me-Anything” Interview with Klaus Roth

Klaus Roth[1] is an emeritus professor at the Freie Universität Berlin where he studied chemistry from 1964 – 1969 and completed his dissertation in 1973. After a post-doctoral stay at the Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, London from 1979 – 1980, he completed his habilitation at the Freie Universität Berlin in 1981. Between 1986 – 1988, he held a position as a visiting professor at the University of California in San Francisco, after which he returned to his home university as an extraordinary professor and became a full professor in 2000. During his research career, he dealt with many aspects of NMR spectroscopy but also popular science.

Klaus Roth publishes regularly in “Chemie in unserer Zeit” about the significance of chemistry in everyday life. You can find some of his articles on On Nov. 28th, 2019 we invited him once again to have a talk at the university in Mainz about the chemistry of the hangover. For that occasion, students and researchers from our university were invited to send us questions from any kind of topic that we asked him together with the Young Chemists Form of Mainz in an “Ask-Me-Anything” interview. Here we present the “best-of” selection.


JUnQ: Which value has symmetry in your life?

Klaus Roth: Some say symmetry is the mathematical form of beauty. But I counter with a saying from northern Germany “Beten scheef hett Gott leev!” which means “God likes it a little crooked”. A little asymmetry can be charming. Of course, as an organic chemist, I had to deal with chirality and optical activity a lot.

JUnQ: What is your favorite molecule?

Klaus Roth: My favorite molecule is a chelate complex with an organic ligand, DTPA (diethylenetriaminepentaacetic acid), and a gadolinium center. It is used in nuclear resonance imagining as a contrast agent. It is not toxic and is injected intravenously in an amount of up to two grams. I have been involved in developments on this topic during my stay in San Francisco and together with the Schering AG.

JUnQ: Which historic moment in science would you like to have witnessed or even have been involved with?

Klaus Roth: Very hard to tell because there have been so many. You might find this strange, but I think very highly about the role of physics in the 1910s and 1920s. It practically turned the conception of the world and physics upside down once more every year. Just think of quantum mechanics and the discoveries of Max Planck and classic electrodynamics, that seemed to coexist incompatibly before. I guess these were exciting times!

JUnQ: Do you do any sports?

Klaus Roth: Since I am living in Berlin-Köpenick, getting in touch with soccer is inevitable (Union Berlin is my club!). I like doing sports myself and can’t imagine living without it. I am a passionate tennis player, although I’m not very good.

JUnQ: How can we imagine the young Klaus Roth, and who were your role models?

Klaus Roth: Well, I’d say just like the old one. I think I kept my essential character traits and still feel young, at least mentally. I never had a particular role model, but I have always had lecturers from whom I have learned how to do it and also how not to do it.

JUnQ: Did you always want to be a chemist?

Klaus Roth: (laughs) When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pastry chef. Amazing job! I am mad about eating cakes. Making all those pastries and pies was a dream. Then I ended up being a chemist, which is nice too. Alas, you can’t eat what you have produced.

JUnQ: What is the most drastic experience from your student days?

Klaus Roth: I remember that I nearly failed because of one experiment in quantitative analytics training. It was the analysis of the separation of sodium and potassium, and I had to repeat it seven times because I never obtained the right results. And everyone else was faster. That is the most horrible memory that I have from my inorganic practicum.

During the research on my diploma thesis, on the other hand, having the final product with the clean mass and NMR spectra in hand was a very uplifting moment, and I knew: this is my profession!

JUnQ: Which achievement in your life makes you most proud?

Klaus Roth: Being a father is the best thing I have achieved in my life. Everything else is not that important.

JUnQ: Imagine someone makes a movie about your life, who would play your part?

Klaus Roth: I cannot imagine that anyone would ever be interested in making a movie about that. But then, it absolutely must be George Clooney, of course.

JUnQ: With whom do you want to have a drink?

Klaus Roth: I guess it would be Hieronymus Bosch. He made some fantastic paintings, and I’d like to know where he got his inspiration from.

JUnQ: Which one of your talk topics is your favorite?

Klaus Roth: That’s hard to tell because I like every one of them. Perhaps, what’s most important to me has rarely been requested yet. It is the story of a young biochemist in Freiburg, Germany (in the 1930s), who’s world drastically changed within half a year. He was first praised as a rising star and later in his life even became a Nobel prize winner. Then he was sort of expelled because of his Jewish ancestry and left the institute in a rush with just the words: “I need to catch the 11 o’clock train.” His name was Hans Krebs, the co-discoverer of the citric acid cycle in England. After the war, he was the first one to take care of the reintegration of German scientists into the scientific community. An exceptional man! Unfortunately, this question did not yet attract much interest except in Freiburg.

JUnQ: How should our publication philosophy change, and how should the scientific community treat null and negative results?

Klaus Roth: Peer-reviewed journals should persist. Despite all the disadvantages and extra work that it implicates, it’s the best we have. Of course, online access to information and journals is a vital improvement compared to the dull library research of the past. Today it’s much more efficient. Negative results have always been neglected in the publications. But this is what JUnQ is trying to work against.

JUnQ: How do we approach more people outside of chemistry?

Klaus Roth: Chemists tend to think that they have a negative image in society. On the contrary, a research study from the Royal Chemical Society showed that we have a far better reputation. We are respected but don’t recognize it. What people expect from us is more communication and clarification in a language that they understand. This is not taught by universities. I think every Ph.D. student should be able to describe their projects to their grandparents within two minutes in such a way that they say: “Gosh! You are doing an impressive job!”. We need to train this because people are not ignorant per se. We simply should use an easier language to convey our passion.

JUnQ: How do we solve the problem of climate change?

Klaus Roth: It’s not possible to answer this in just a few words. In any case, something must happen soon. It is, of course, reasonable to apply strict measures. But in the long term, the industry of a solitary country will decay or at least suffer. Without international cooperation and support from the Great Powers, it won’t be possible. Right now, I’m very pessimistic, and I don’t know what else must happen before everyone sits down at one table to talk.

JUnQ: Which food should we better not eat anymore?

Klaus Roth: In my opinion, food that you can buy in the supermarket, which is already processed and packed in aluminum, just to be fried or warmed up again – like roast potatoes, for example. It is no wonder that they contain preservatives. How else could they stay on the shelves for months? They are easy to make at home and taste much better. Those convenient foods should be evaluated by how much more sense it would make and money one would save by preparing them at home.

JUnQ: Imagine that Elon Musk invites you on a trip to the moon. Would you accept the invitation?

Klaus Roth: Now? Since I have seen the spatial conditions on those space crafts, I’d say most certainly not! Apart from that, the chemistry on the moon is definitively too inorganic.

But looking at our planet from so far away – I remember one picture from one of those voyager missions where the earth was just a tiny spot in the empty space – makes us appear to be much more irrelevant than we value ourselves. I think people should be less occupied with themselves.

JUnQ: What is your favorite conspiracy theory?

Klaus Roth: Perhaps it is the anti-vaccination movement. To me, the whole discussion is incomprehensible. Just look at the statistics. It’s a shame that the anti-vaxxers profit from those who take the vaccines. Nowadays, people don’t consider hard facts anymore because their life has become too easy. They don’t know what it means to be infected and seriously ill because most of us are vaccinated against whooping cough, rubella, smallpox, and so on. Nobody worries about their physical health anymore.

JUnQ: What’s your best advice for young chemists at the beginning of their careers?

Klaus Roth: Most important: be well prepared for your job interview but be yourself. Read a newspaper daily, go to the theater, and try not to be a geek.

JUnQ: What’s your universal message to every scientist in the world?

Klaus Roth: Peace and Cheers!

JUnQ: Thank you very much for the interview!

We would also like to thank the YCF team for their support!

— Tatjana Dänzer