Published online 8 June 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news070604-11

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Meeting for a party

Famed chemist celebrates his 65th birthday by showcasing next generation of scientists.

65 candles: Fraser Stoddart hands out his birthday cake.65 candles: Fraser Stoddart hands out his birthday cake.Ai-Lan Lee

When you hit 65, the typical celebration might go something like: gather family and friends at home, eat cake, drink champagne, maybe play a round of golf. But Fraser Stoddart, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and one of the world's top chemists, decided instead to gather together the best of the next generation of chemists to showcase their research.

"I'm having a whale of a time, it's a very moving experience," says Stoddart.

It isn't unusual for academics to hold conferences to celebrate milestone birthdays — Steven Hawking's 60th birthday consisted of prominent talks punctuated by afternoon tea. But the invitees are usually contemporaries of the birthday boy or girl — a kind of academic version of This is Your Life. Stoddart's birthday party, held at University of Edinburgh, UK, instead includes talks from 32 of what Stoddart terms Young Giants of chemistry.

"We didn't want to do the standard 65th birthday conference," says conference organiser David Leigh, who did his PhD with Stoddart from 1984 to 1987, and is now professor of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. "Fraser is not a conventional scientist. His group and alumni have never operated along those conventional lines."

Stoddart, who was knighted in this year's honours list for services to chemistry and molecular nanotechnology, began his academic career in Edinburgh with a BSc in chemistry in 1964.

Since then he has worked on making molecules do mechanical tricks, through processes known as self-assembly and molecular recognition. He has made molecular ring systems that can slide up and down a molecular axis, acting as reversible switches and even binary logic gates. He has also used his self-assembling method to create a suite of exotic molecules in the shape of knots and connected rings — including a molecule with five interlocking rings just like the Olympic rings — fittingly called olympiadane.

In amongst the science, no one has forgotten that this is a birthday party. Balloons (shaped liked the interlocked molecules that Stoddart is famed for) adorn the corridors of the chemistry department, and all the speakers have birthday messages for Stoddart. The conference will culminate with a birthday cake.

And many more

Stoddart is happier looking forwards than celebrating his past achievements. "The magic of having people in mid career is that they give the spirit of not only achievement but of where we're going next," Stoddart says. "They're still hungry for success."

"It's almost unprecedented — I've never been to a meeting where so many leaders in their field were gathered together in the same place," says Howard Colquhoun, from the University of Reading, UK. Colquhoun worked at ICI with Stoddart in the late 1970s. Since then Stoddart has worked with more than 300 chemists. "The vast majority of those have gone on to influence how science works across the world," says Colquhoun.

Five of the 18 plenary lecturers are in the top 100 list of most-cited chemists in the past 10 years; and they're still in their 40s. Included in the line-up is Omar Yaghi, now a colleague of Stoddart's at the University of California. Yaghi's work involves making very porous materials, and finding new ways to store hydrogen gas inside them for use in fuel cells.

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Also presenting was Craig Hawker of the University of California in Santa Barbara. Hawker's latest work on using block copolymers that self-assemble into porous structures, is being used by IBM, who plan to use this system as a way of introducing air gaps into their mircoprocessors to help the devices work faster.

Stoddart goes as far as to suggest that within the confines of the conference sit three or four future Nobel prizewinners. The next big creative leap or original idea in chemistry, he says, is "going to be in the hands of people like them".

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