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Spring 2000
Speed Demon
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On what passes in Westwood for a cold Friday afternoon in January, Heath is sitting in his office, legs crossed, hair in characteristic disarray, drinking a warm beer from the bottle and describing a spectacular career that could easily have derailed along the way. His first love, for instance, has always been music. (Kroto describes Heath as a "fantastic musician.") He started on the trumpet in grade school and moved on to the guitar, saxophone and violin. "When I was at Rice," he says, "I was in a band and we played clubs a lot. Everything from jazz, which is my thing, to rock to reggae to ska."

After earning his Ph.D. at Rice with Smalley, Heath went on to a postdoc at UC Berkeley under Rich Saykally. The two chemists developed a kind of mutual admiration society. Heath calls Saykally "probably the world's best spectroscopist," while Saykally calls Heath "the most brilliant experimentalist" he's ever worked with. Heath, Saykally also says, is the only postdoc who ever punched him - an enlightening tidbit if ever there was one. The gist of the story is that Saykally found Heath's intensity and total absorption while doing an experiment oddly amusing, and Heath one day took exception to Saykally's delight at walking up unnoticed behind him and trying to scare him witless. "He chased me around the lab," Saykally says, "and punched me as hard as he could in the chest."

At Berkeley, however, Heath learned the downside of publicly admitting to visionary tendencies, at least when looking for a faculty job. "That year, I was the hot guy on the interview market until people actually heard what I wanted to do, and then nobody wanted to hire me," Heath says. He was a physical chemist proposing to study nanoscience, to synthesize clusters of metal atoms and study their properties, which required skills far beyond any that came through on his résumé. Saykally describes Heath's research proposals as "a little too futuristic for most chemistry departments" and so Heath's efforts racked up a disheartening 0-for-12 record: 12 interviews, 12 rejections. Heath was so depressed by the state of affairs and the specter of working as an industrial chemist - "some guy comes into your lab and hands you some yellow stuff and says, 'Here, what is it? I'll be back later' "- that Saykally had to convince him not to quit science. "I was ready to go to med school, law school, do anything," says Heath. "I didn't want to do this."

After another year at Berkeley, however, he did another round of interviews and this time reined in his ambitions, at least publicly. He said he wanted to do physical chemistry, which was what he had made his name at, and was promptly hired by IBM. Heath then took advantage of a screw-up with his laboratory to establish himself in nanotechnology. The IBM episode, says Saykally, was "a beautiful story."

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