Conversations on Creativity

7:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 9, 2004
Madison Public Library Ashman Branch 733 N. High Point Road

Creativity in Chemistry

Charles P. Casey
Professor of Chemistry, UW-Madison College of Letters and Science

Whether in the context of a multi-million dollar lab or a toy chemistry set, one of the most consistently fascinating dimensions of chemistry is the creation-at the molecular level-of materials that do not exist in nature. Chemistry demands extremely high levels of creativity, and many chemists spend their lives creating things; designing and synthesizing molecules to test theories, to produce new materials, or to make lifesaving drugs. But, as in many of the "hard" sciences, the role of creativity in chemistry is little-understood or recognized.

Chemists must also have finely developed imaginative abilities. In chemical reactions, unseen intermediates often occur that never build up to measurable concentrations and have extremely short lifetimes. The creative ability of chemists is challenged to come up with imaginative ways to probe this fleeting molecular world. Chemists use their imagination and intuition about how related chemical reactions occur to devise competing hypotheses for how the reaction occurs. They suggest structures for a series of unseen intermediates and then construct experiments that allow distinction between competing hypotheses.

Creativity in chemistry also poses challenges for educators-particularly in colleges and graduate schools. With the need for creativity so acute, and its nature so misunderstood, how do chemistry graduate schools nurture creativity in their students? Can creativity be learned? Can it be taught? What role can faculty and instructors play in developing the creativity of students? These questions, which can be applied to many academic and professional disciplines, form the core of the Conversations on Creativity series.

About the Presenter:

Charles P. Casey is Homer B. Adkins Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He focuses on mechanistic organometallic chemistry and homogeneous catalysis. His research group studies mechanisms of important catalytic processes including hydroformylation, hydrogenation, and alkene polymerization. He teaches a one-semester organic chemistry course for non-specialists and a graduate course in organometallic chemistry (in which the major assignment is a creative research proposal). Casey received a B.S. from St. Louis University and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from M.I.T. After postdoctoral work at Harvard University, he joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1968. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is currently President of the American Chemical Society.