10 QUESTIONS WITH... Professor Erich A. Muller Imperial College London

The TYC asks 10 questions to leading scientists and engineers to give some insight into their work, interests and heroes...

This time we talked to Professor Erich A. Muller who will be speaking at the TYC Soiree on Confined/interfacial fluids in solids/2D materials on Thursday 23rd November at University College London.

We asked Professor Muller..

What is the best thing about your job?

I value the academic freedom most of all. There is no substitute for letting the mind go on its own and to develop new ideas and new paths, without any straightjackets.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

We are pursuing the application of coarse-grained molecular models of fluids to industrially-relevant scenarios. Our models are based on a top-down fitting procedure using the SAFT equation of state which confers a very robust and reliable outcome.

It is a new paradigm, and as such we have had to do a reasonable amount of testing to understand the limits of the approach.

We have been using the SAFT potentials to study the behaviour of fluids in bulk, in confinement, at interfaces. We have also explored their use in transport phenomena, as pseudo-models for complex mixtures such as crude oils, design of membranes, etc. 

What is the most amazing single thing you could tell me about your field of research?

I think that question was already answered by Richard Feynman, when he posed the hypothetical question  (similar to yours) : “ If all knowledge on Earth were to be wiped out and you could send a single message to a new generation of intelligent beings, what would it be?”  The answer, (which I share) is the simple fact that all matter is made of atoms and the understanding of the collective behaviour of matter and life boils down to the monitoring of the simple interactions between atoms (and molecules). 

What is the biggest problem or challenge you face in your field?

The biggest current challenge is the scale up of the different levels of molecular description. There are fabulous advances in different scales of looking at matter, for example in quantum mechanics or at the other end of the spectrum in the continuum description of matter using computers, but there is only a very crude and arguably very difficult challenege to link these scales in such a way that they can be simultaneously used. Each one is looking at their own little neck of the woods, but the seeing the big picture is the tough one.

What, from your area of research, would you like to know the answer to in your lifetime?

I am most intrigued by the fine line between self-assembly, which we can easily explore with molecular simulations and experiments and understanding what is the extra element needed to define life. It does remind me a bit of DaVinci’s search for the soul by disecting cadavers, only that we are searching at a molecular level.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no hope of learning the answer to this question, but the search for answers is definitely fun.

What makes a good scientist or engineer?

Problem solving is the definition of a scientist/engineer. So, the creativity of the solution is then the factor that separates the great scientists from the rest.

Who are your scientific heroes - dead or alive?

You can probably guess from the second answer.

What is your proudest work related moment?

An applause at the end of a lecture. I am not referring to the polite applause at the end of a scientific talk in a meeting, but the gratutite of students that have noticed that they have learned something valuable and possibly unexpected.

What is your biggest work related mistake?

Probably not saying “no" enough…

Any wisdom to share?

My comment would be to the younger students, to think about scientific careers as a game of hide and seek where you are the eternal “it”. Seriously, look it up in Wikipedia: 

Skills required: running, tracking, hiding, observation, ability to stay silent, ability to blend in with the environment

Playing time: no limit

So simply call out loud “ ready or not, here I come”.




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