The 2011 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2January 5th, 2012
The results have been tabulated, and it is time to announce the recipients of the Chemmy Awards for 2011! Following our centuries-old tradition, we begin by bestowing the statuettes on the winners of accident, hero(ine), and villain of the year.
Accident of the Year
The Boston College Thionyl Chloride Explosion
Yes, the tsunami-induced disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was a much bigger story, but like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010, it had more to do with engineering than chemistry. And while the fatal lathe accident at Yale occurred in the chemistry department’s machine shop, that horrific story also seemed not to have much to do with chemistry; the deceased student wasn’t even a chemistry major. The nitric acid explosion at Maryland was certainly a chemistry accident, but it did not measure up to what transpired at Boston College last summer. It was at BC that a grad student injured herself in a minor explosion while working with thionyl chloride. Rather than call the authorities, she inexplicably fled the blood-spattered scene and drove home. Concerned labmates later discovered and reported the accident, and emergency crews were dispatched to the student’s apartment to decontaminate her and treat her wounds. The accident—and its needlessly convoluted/expensive/disruptive aftermath—made the local TV news in Boston (1 2) and led to a thoughtful discussion in the blogosphere about the safety of working alone (1 2). Unfortunately, I don’t believe a final post mortem (including the cause of the accident) was ever released, but the major lesson was clear: report accidents promptly so they can be dealt with in an efficient manner.
Hero of the Year
I don’t want to fall into a trap of continually granting the award to the most recent Nobel laureate, but in the case of Dan Shechtman, the Chemmy for Hero of the Year is richly deserved. The story of Shechtman and quasicrystals is one of perseverance and vindication. Shechtman’s peculiar discovery of a material with ten-fold symmetry was roundly ridiculed by experts in the field of crystallography—including the venerable Linus Pauling—but in the face of this immense pressure, Shechtman stuck by his analysis and waited for the field to come around. Under this intense pressure, the director of Shechtman’s research group wanted him to leave for bringing disgrace to the team, and it took two years to finally get the seminal quasicrystal work published. It was then that the really intense pressure started, but Shechtman held firm to his ostensibly counterintuitive analysis, which ultimately withstood the scrutiny of the community.
Also in the running for hero of the year were John Schwab (a champion of organic-chemistry funding at the NIH who retired this year), Rosie Redfield (who took it upon herself to do some of the “arsenic life” experimentation that Felisa Wolfe-Simon should have done), and Ahmed Zewail (who assisted with the political revolution in his native Egypt).
Villain of the Year
Linus Pauling remained dead in 2011, but the Nobel Prize announcement certainly raised several skeletons from his past. Before I lambast the man, let me start by calling attention to the fact that I rank Pauling as the greatest chemist of all-time. That said, he had his share of spectacular failures. Pauling missed the structure of DNA, his work with vitamin C was pure medical quackery, and his unrelenting dismissal of Shechtman’s discovery of quasicrystals was outright wrong. What was so villainous with regard to Pauling’s behavior in the last case was that he used his bully pulpit in the crystallography community to personally disparage Shechtman alongside the idea of quasicrystals. Pauling famously said, ”There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists,” and he mounted a relentless, vocal crusade against the idea until his death. Shechtman’s idea would ultimately prevail, and he summed up the situation quite nicely to the RSC: “At first I was alone against the world. In the end, Linus Pauling was alone against the world.”
There were a number of other contenders for this award. In 2011, the release of the results of Columbia’s investigation into the misconduct of Bengu Sezen finally verified the egregious nature of her conduct, first reported (here) in 2005. The actions of Felicia Wolfe-Simon in the wake of the “arsenic life” story were also worthy of reproach. Finally, Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent link of MMR vaccination to autism also came to light last year.
Next up: the Chemmy Awards for the biggest news story and best papers of 2011.