Archive for the ‘Unrecoverable’ Category

Power Couples in Chemistry

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I attempted to salvage a post from my (defunct) personal blog in which I had ranked the top 5 “power couples” in chemistry. Unfortunately, the Internet Archive’s spider somehow managed to miss it, and I fear that the thread has been lost forever. All I can remember is that I ranked Jackie Barton & Peter Dervan (Caltech) first, Laura Kiessling & Ron Raines (Wisconsin) second, then somewhere down the line were Mary & David Gin (Illinois). I know that was waaaay back in March 2006, but if you can remember the others, leave a comment.

While controversial rankings have become a staple of ChemBark, I am going to take a pass on updating my list for 2011. It’s just too difficult, though I’d definitely add Christina White & Marty Burke (Illinois) to the mix—I’m a big fan of both.

So, no new rankings, but I do have an interesting story about the old “power couples” post.

As you might imagine, I occasionally receive IRL/human feedback on the blog—both positive and negative. The feedback runs the gamut from dirty looks across hallways to direct, verbal accostings, and it comes from people at all levels of our grand institution (from undergrads to retirees). I am always willing to awkwardly accept praise or criticism, though afterward, I usually end up wishing the discussion had occurred in a comments thread where more people could benefit from it.

So anyway…in March of last year, we had a big party at Caltech to celebrate my current advisor’s 75th birthday. The event was staged on the Saturday before the ACS National Meeting in Anaheim, and many of chemistry’s brightest stars were able to attend. It was a really fun night.

As things were wrapping up, my eyes caught a former grad student from our lab directing a woman through the crowd. I was the obvious target of their advance. The woman’s face was instantly familiar, but it took me a couple of seconds to realize…

Hey, that’s Laura Kiessling!

In the next three seconds, my mind raced through the familiar routine:

Uh, oh…what have I said about Laura Kiessling? Hmmmmm. And this was such a good night. Ugh.

It was great to meet Prof. Kiessling, and as we exchanged hellos, it clicked that I had mentioned her and Ron Raines (who would join the conversation a few moments later) in the “Power Couples” post. Sure enough, that ended up being the first topic of conversation:

LK: We’ve got a bone to pick with you.

PB: Ah, ok.

LK: You had a post on your blog about the top power couples in chemistry, and you only ranked us number #2!

The conversation was all in good fun, and they were both very nice. I conceded that those rankings were many years old and in desperate need of an update.

But, of course, I never delivered that update and I won’t provide it now, either. But if you want to have a go, dear readers of ChemBark, please feel free…

Singing the Elements

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

This young woman hijacked her chemistry class at Carleton University to sing her stupid original song about the elements.  It is really, really poor.  I especially despise how she annoyingly interrupts her terrible singing with pointless commentary.  I can’t believe she earned “an extra mark” for this piece of garbage:

Of course, for a top-notch elements song, look no farther than Harvard’s Tom Lehrer:



Mistakes and Mnemonics

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

An astute reader passed along the following nomination for the official Chemistry Hall of Shame (accept no imitations).  It’s another chemistry advertisement, published on page 66 in the June 18th edition of C&EN:

An Ad for Iodosuccinimide in Chemical and Engineering News

Sweet. I guess if you buy two methylene groups, they’ll throw in an extra one for free.  Big props to J. for scanning in the ad and passing it along.

All this succinimide/glutarimide business reminds me of my favorite chemistry mnemonic—the one for remembering the straight-chain diacids (from two carbons to seven):

Oh My, Such Good Apple Pie

(Oxalic Malonic Succinic Glutaric Adipic Pimelic)

Now, I’m not going to do something as hackneyed as ask, “What is your favorite chemistry mnemonic?” Nope. Not going to do it.


Drugs and More — RVW #4

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

This is the fourth part in Retread’s Rip Van Winkle series.

There’s a lot to say about just the introduction to Jones. First a mistake — on p. xxxii he implies that heroin is addictive while morphine (described as a pain killer) is not. Unfortunately not true. Both can be addictive and I saw plenty of narcotic addiction as a neurologist (notice I said “can be” not “is”). When I was an Army Doc from ‘68 – ‘70, we had half a million men in Vietnam, and really pure heroin was readily available from Thailand next door. The tour of duty over there was one year. It was estimated that 20 – 30% of the troops used narcotics while there. We were braced for a giant expansion of the addict population over here. It didn’t happen. When shipped back to the states, some mild withdrawal occurred and I saw a few seizures when withdrawal was more severe. Most vets gave it up without much difficultly (assuming that the 20 – 30% figure is close to accurate).

Having used lots of morphine (postoperative pain, auto accidents etc. etc.) I would say that 95% of people receiving morphine or one of its synthetic cousins do NOT like the way it makes them feel (although they are all grateful for the pain relief). What is truly fascinating is that those liking the stuff and those not liking it describe the experience exactly the same way. “I was out of control. I didn’t care about anything. I couldn’t concentrate—I hated it” or “I didn’t have a care in the world. I was just floating, and forgot my troubles—I loved it”. I don’t think neurochemistry—or even chemistry—can explain this. It is the province of novelists and psychiatrists.

Second (still on p. xxxii) although structure determination is easy now, it wasn’t back then (as Jones mentions). However, structure determination taught a lot of chemistry to chemists and certainly sharpened their analytic skills.

A chemist (David Ginsburg from Israel) gave us a series of lectures on the opium alkaloids (I think in the fall of ‘60). I’m not sure just how many but my retranscribed notes on them go for 46 pages of which the first 32 were on the determination of the structure of morphine, and the last 14 concerned its synthesis. As I recall, Woodward
attended all of them.

Parenthetically, it is always a good idea to retranscribe your notes (assuming people still take notes) so that you can understand them years later.

The most interesting statement (again p. xxxii) is “Chemists began the transformation from the hunter-gatherer stage to modern times, in which we routinely seek to use what we know to generate new knowledge.” While certainly true, I think that chemists have always done this. We certainly thought so in the 60s. The further implication is that there is no role for just ‘messing about’ to find new chemistry. I don’t know enough chemical history to say how many surprises there have been, but no one anticipated Buckyballs and nanotubes (as I recall). What about the metathesis reaction? Was that figured out beforehand? In the next installment, I’ll argue that molecular biology is still in the hunter gatherer stage, even though up to a few years ago most molecular biologists didn’t think so.



Unsolicited Suggestions for C&EN

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

As you know by now, I’m a C&E News superfan. In this week’s edition, editor-in-chief Rudy Baum discusses how he spices up the cover of our favorite chemistry magazine by insisting on variety.  That’s why I like it when he cuts the leash and lets the art editors (directors?) play with the covers. On May 7th, we saw the third (by my count) fancy cover since the 2006 redesign.  The blue and white title bar made a triumphant return, and the cover sported the most centrally-located address label that I can remember (yet required no ugly white box):

Now is probably as good a time as any to unload all of the comments and suggestions I’ve been saving for C&EN:

As much as I hate to say it, I’ve really liked the new “C&EN Photo Gallery” section.  I’m torn, because while I like nice pictures, I am also troubled by some PI’s insistance on finding a pretty picture FOR EVERYTHING. That said, there are times when the crux of an experiment can be explained by a nice picture. Also, some pictures bankrupt of scientific value still have artistic merit.

I think a regular reader/commenter on ChemBark took one of the pictures featured in this week’s gallery. I don’t want to out him/her, but would the mystery photographer enter and sign in, please?

I’d like to see more opinion in C&EN, especially the point-counterpoint pieces. There is a simple method for selecting good pairs of chemists to fight in print. First, the people have to be recognized experts on the subject in question.  You can’t pick a random idiot, but you also can’t pick a big name in a tangential field just because he’s a big name. Second, it’s best if the people you pick are jerks who don’t care about upsetting anyone. Don’t pick writers who mince words—diplomatic writing is less informative and less entertaining.  Give us a duel.  We want to know why someone is wrong, and we don’t want to sift through BS to find out.

My most radical suggestion: C&EN should sponsor a chemical song parody contest.  They could run a full-page call for submissions over several weeks, then post the best songs (top 50?) online and give prizes to the top 5.  I’m sure the contest would drive plenty of traffic to the online edition, and the feature would stand a good chance of getting picked up by Fark, Slashdot, and Boing-Boing.  If money is what motivates the powers that be, think about how this would increase site traffic, and consequently, ad revenue.

That’s it for now, but prepare for a big Big BIG BIG C&E News post on Friday.  Big.



Percy Julian: Amazing Chemist, but “Forgotten Genius”?

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

Back in February, I caught the two-hour NOVA special on the life of Percy Julian. I’ll give it 3.5 stars out of 5. Julian’s story is really interesting, and amazingly, the producers did an exceptional job of conveying the excitement of research in organic chemistry. While it gets a little slow towards the end, the program is well worth watching.

When I first heard about the episode, I was skeptical. Part of me was upset that of all the excellent chemists in the history of chemistry, Percy Julian was picked to be featured on TV. When faced with the decision to select one chemist to represent our profession, most of us would pick a legend like Woodward or Pauling. So, I sat there asking myself, “Why does Julian deserve to hold the torch for chemistry on television?”

Adding more fuel to the fire was that the program was titled “Forgotten Genius”. Given the circumstances of it being Black History Month, the obvious implication was that society had “forgotten” about Julian because he was black. Also, “genius” is a word that is probably used more frequently than is warranted. Both of these editorial statements in the title kind of put me on the attack before the program even aired. On the plus side, the potential for controversy definitely piqued my interest.

After watching the program, I came out with a much more favorable opinion than I had going in. The producers did a fantastic job of showing that Julian was an excellent chemist and an amazing man. Any argument to the contrary is simply untenable. Here’s a quick rundown of his credentials: He grew up in the Jim Crow South and tenaciously pursued his education into college, where excelled in his courses by finishing first in his class at DePauw. He gained admission to Harvard for graduate study, but had to leave with a master’s degree due to his inability to secure a teaching fellowship because of his race. After completing a Ph.D. overseas, he set up a lab at DePauw, where he beat Sir Robert Robinson to the total synthesis of physostigmine and embarrassed the synthetic legend in the process. Despite his credentials, Julian was unable to secure a job at Depauw or in industry because he was black. Eventually, he was offered a position at Glidden. There, he directed the Soya Products Division, and his discoveries of uses for soy mirrored everything that George Washington Carver is celebrated for with the peanut, and more. Julian made important contributions to total synthesis, steroid chemistry, and materials chemistry. After Glidden terminated its steroid work, Julian moved on to start his own chemical company, where he challenged the Syntex monopoly in front of Congress and won. And as if all of these achievements weren’t impressive enough, Julian accomplished them in the face of an appalling amount of racism in both the chemical establishment and the Chicago community.

Simply amazing. I knew parts of his story, but most of the details were completely new to me. While I got more than my money’s worth, even at the end, the title “Forgotten Genius” left a sour taste in my mouth. Personally, I hadn’t “forgotten” about Julian—I never really knew his story. While society may have forgotten about him, Julian is hardly unique in this regard. Our society didn’t forget about Percy Julian because we’re racist, but because he worked in chemistry and in industry, where the credit is spread more thinly. How many industrial chemists can the general public name? I’m a chemist, and while I didn’t know that Percy Julian developed soy into fire suppressants at Glidden, I still don’t know the names of the scientists who invented pressure-sensitive adhesives at 3M, nor the people who developed Viagra at Pfizer. These are remarkable achievements, but aside from Carothers, Plunkett, and Derek Lowe, I’m at a loss to name more than a handful of industrial chemists whom I don’t know personally.

As for my initial reaction to Julian being chosen over Woodward or Pauling, perhaps my problem was that I watched this program as an insider wanting the fundamental history of chemistry to be told, whereas most viewers probably tuned in to be entertained. After giving the issue more thought, it occurred to me that Julian is a much better person to present to the general public than someone like Woodward. While we appreciate RBW’s accomplishments as experts, his creativity would be very hard to convey to a lay audience. Contrast that with the achievements of Julian, whose crosses to bear are much more obvious and easy for the general public to relate to.

Indeed, with a few exceptions (like presidential addresses and debates), the main purpose of television programs is to get ratings—even on PBS. The purpose of television is not to give credit to deserving chemists or to educate the public. Percy Julian’s story was compelling and perfect for Black History Month. In this regard, it was a win for NOVA, but it was also a win for chemistry. For one night, the show made our science seem exciting and relevant, though perhaps elitist and inaccessible. Even with those minor drawbacks, we should take what we can get. Chemists are simply awful at promoting chemistry to the general public. Contrast this with physics, where Einstein is a God, cosmology has fueled countless sci-fi series like Star Trek, and Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson appear on TV left and right. Who is the face of chemistry? For all the good that chemistry does in the world, all we get is bad press in the form of chemical spills, plant explosions, weapons of mass destruction, hazardous waste, and editorials on how drug companies are evil and oil companies make too much money. Even the word “chemical” has a negative connotation. While one TV show on PBS won’t fix our problem, recounting the stories of some “chemical heroes” will go a long way. NOVA made an excellent choice in Julian. Now, will other chemists follow or is this party over?