Building Creative Communities for the New Economy
Inside Jack’s Head
Drama of immense proportions may be unfolding this very moment inside Jack Smith’s head.
Jack’s head, or more accurately his mind, is where randy electrons cruise at breakneck speeds, languid protons wait for a hookup, and molecule matchmakers such as himself calculate the perfect setup for a climax. The plot thickens. But not so fast…there’s this tremendous energy barrier…Jack turns the heat up, the molecules go crazy…and BAM! They come together with tremendous force, they reach their peak, and the next thing you know, they’re bound. You get a new polymer, and maybe an extra little sibling.
Jack doesn’t usually talk this way about his work. Only when he’s giving the Harlequin Romance version of what he does to a person he suspects skipped high school chemistry.
Jack, or Dr. Jack, quantum chemist, as he is known in the scientific stratosphere, has made a living creating these and similar scenarios on his computer screen, but unless you read math, you’re not going to get it. Never mind. He rarely tries to explain what he does. But he’s definitely one of those creative New Economy types whose output is on the same level as writers, illustrators, and designers who live by their wits.
"I design molecules. That’s what I do," he explained to me over coffee at First Watch, a little breakfast joint in downtown Charleston. In fact, he designed catalysts for Union Carbide back in the day when the former industrial giant employed a rarified group of inventors. "Chemists would come there from all over world, craving to be a part of that group," Jack says. "The average person didn’t realize what kind of people were up on the hill. They were here because they were the best, and this was the absolute best place in the world to be. It was the best opportunity to do what I love."
He figured that out, though, after he got there. He went to Carbide in the late seventies as a scientific programmer with a fresh doctorate in chemical physics from the University of Florida. Despite the degree, he was not a typical chemist and never worked in a lab. "I’m actually a mathematician," he says. "Everything resolves to math."
That understanding has given him the flexibility to ride out the storm that occurred when Carbide experienced extreme corporate climate change. After a few years of painful decline, once-mighty Carbide disappeared within the Dow Chemical Company and Jack found himself retired at a relatively young age.
He calls it luck that he made the transition from corporate scientist to free agent. The guy who is so soft-spoken that you might have to cup your ear to hear him is highly visible in the broad field of applied science. His outlook makes him highly adaptable, thus highly employable. "I think of myself as creating new ways to solve problems," he says. "That’s why I do programming."
Basically, he sits in front of his computer and thinks. "I use some commercial software, but I also write a lot of my own. I’ve been working in Java for about 10 years." His status as an innovator has landed him contracts with such companies as Spatial Integrated Systems, Marshall University Research Corporation, the Mid Atlantic Technology Research and Innovation Center –MATRIC—and Certus Scientific, a for-profit company that often collaborates with MATRIC. Jack is the Certus lead programmer developing a lunar landing device for NASA, and is part of the team that is creating a virtual reality lab for safety training at Marshall University’s new engineering facilities.
Most of what he does now is not quantum chemistry, but he says he’s having more fun than ever. "I get to explore a lot of new things. I’m out on the edge of imaging software development. Not only am I doing it, I’m writing the tools to do it."
He has the most fun creating. "There’s an aesthetic aspect to what I do," he says. "Paint is not creative in itself. It’s used to create. Science can be the same way. I use it to be creative. I like elegant solutions."
By Rebecca Kimmons
Photo (Jack Smith) Caption:
Jack Smith, Ph.D., molecule designer.