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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."
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."
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."
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."