Archive for the ‘Chemical History’ Category


Monday, October 25th, 2010

Anyone remember these?

Caltech Reprint Request Cards

I don’t…they’re reprint-request postcards from the chemical days of yore.  I’m not sure how old the cards are, but maybe we can calculate it:  since they were printed, the Caltech ZIP code has grown from 91109 to 91125.

I think this is how the system worked:  When you published a paper, you would also order reprints (neatly printed copies of the paper) from the publisher to give to colleagues.  If someone wanted to read your paper and didn’t have access to the journal, he would fill out one of these cards and mail it to you, and you’d sent him back a reprint.

Despite the woeful inefficiency of the system relative to today, I suppose it had its charms.  Many professors didn’t wait for requests and would mail unsolicited reprints to colleagues and competitors.  I love coming across these papers, which often have some short note scrawled across the top of the page followed by a signature (e.g., “Dear Harold, It looks like we scooped you again.  All the best, Ernest”).

I’m tempted to send a card to a professor to see if the request is honored.  Any suggestions?

(HT to Larry for the cards.)

Pop Quiz: Nobel Laureates in Chemistry

Friday, September 10th, 2010

I love Sporcle.  Love, love, love it.

If you have no idea what Sporcle is, you’re missing out.  It’s a Web site where you can take all sorts of quizzes on geography, history, literature, politics, and…of course…science.  Several quizzes vetted by admins are posted daily, and there’s a library of hundreds of other quizzes from which to choose.

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of chemistry quizzes, except for random trivia about the elements.  For instance, can you name all of the elements that have single-letter symbols?  What about the elements that are six letters long?  Still remember your amino acid abbreviations?

In celebration of the awesomeness of Sporcle and of chemistry, I’ve made this little quiz:

Can you name all of the Nobel laureates in chemistry?

If you’re feeling saucy, head on over and give it a try.  When you’re done, you can click on “see the most missed” answers to view how you stack up against everyone else who’s taken it.  And, of course, feel free to brag about your score in the comments.  We won’t believe you, but feel free nonetheless.

Extraordinary Feats in JACS

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Covers of JACSHere are two of my favorite examples of epic domination within the pages of the Journal of the American Chemical Society:

1)  Streitwieser, A.  J. Am. Chem. Soc.  1944, 66, 2127. (DOI)

Andrew Streitwieser, a legend in the field of physical organic chemistry, published his first paper as a high school student.  It was a single-author communication in JACS submitted from his home address in Queens.  Streitwieser attended (the renowned) Stuyvesant High School and placed 9th with his project in the 1945 Westinghouse Science Talent Search.  His classmate, Ed Kosower, finished first that year.  The two would later go on to co-write a bestselling textbook for sophomore organic chemistry.  (This book gets a 4.5-star rating from me, and you know I’m a picky jerk).

In the JACS paper, Streitwieser gets up in the grill of the authors of a previous JACS communication.  In 1939 (DOI), Kharasch and Brown reported that fluorene is chlorinated by sulfuryl chloride, but they didn’t report the regiochemistry of the reaction.  Streitwieser repeated the reaction, supposed the compound was 2-chlorofluorene based on data in the literature, prepared a sample of authentic 2-chlorofluorene by a known method, and measured the mixed melting point to demonstrate that the compounds were the same.  Oh, and by the way, the “Brown” that this precocious high-school chemist decided to upbraid within the pages of JACS was none other than Nobel laureate H.C. Brown of organoborane fame.   

2) Now, look at these:

Heck, R.F.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1968, 90, 5518-5526.  (DOI)
Heck, R.F.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1968, 90, 5526-5531.  (DOI)
Heck, R.F.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1968, 90, 5531-5534.  (DOI)
Heck, R.F.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1968, 90, 5535-5538.  (DOI)
Heck, R.F.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1968, 90, 5538-5542.  (DOI)
Heck, R.F.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1968, 90, 5542-5546.  (DOI)
Heck, R.F.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1968, 90, 5546-5548.  (DOI)

That’s right, Richard Heck published back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back single-author papers in a 1968 issue of JACS.   And it’s not like these papers are cupcakes; they form the basis for what should earn the man a share of the Nobel Prize.

In the same issue, E.J. Corey has 5 papers, F.A. Cotton has a back-to-back pair, and Roald Hoffmann has a pair of his own.  Did these guys ever leave space for anyone else?

An Old Foray into the Corey Lab

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Perhaps the only legitimate traffic sent to the old blog was via the Wikipedia article for E.J. Corey.  Someone decided to link to my picture of the famous traffic light at the door to Corey’s office at Harvard.  Since this photo came down with the rest of the blog, I figured I’d get the pic back up in our first trip to the archives:

Photo of E.J. Corey's Office Door Traffic Light

That’s it, in all its glory.  When wishing to speak to Professor Corey, you would present yourself at his door and wait for a green light (i.e., enter) or red light (i.e., go away).  I’m not sure whether you knocked or pressed a button—I never mustered the pluck to talk with him.  I am told that anyone was welcome at his office and that everyone was expected to go through the same procedure.

In the comments on the original post, someone named “Pete” left this story:

With intent it was installed. Its effectiveness no doubt keeps it fucntioning although not ever seeing it “in use” during my 2+ years of observation whie taking the elevator from the 3rd floor to the basement to take an NMR. I am sure it is was it is living up to the reputation. The mildly interesting story I have on the matter is as follows.

Professor Kishi, a great scientist in his own right and a student of the great Professor Robert Woodward, wanting to chat with professor Corey pounded on the door to E.J.s in the presence of an able, albeit unsuspecting, student found himself standing in front of door with the “red light” signal. I should note that E..J.s office door, painted flat blue if I remember correctly but otherwise unremarkable, looks more like that of an entrance to a service box. The door is unusually flush with the wall with little to no threshold suggesting nothing of significance inhabits the other side, certainly not a Nobel Prize winner. Whether Kishi had specific knowledge that E.J. was in his office or whether he was interested in testing the innate behavior of a Harvard Graduate student is unknown but what followed was certainly consisent with Kishi using the situation to entertain himself. Kishi, perhaps being overly comfortable at identifying and taking advantage of opportunities to run experiments at the expense of others, went to work without hesitation. Kishi pounded on the door in the presence of the unsuspecting student. The light red light flashed. The student already feeling uncomfortable with what he had just observed responded to Kishi’s insolent question of “What is this?” with a quick retort of “That means don’t bother me know, I’m busy”. The student unable to move on at that moment was held in place by a more intense repetition of the action of Professor Kishi. The student was torn between escaping, informing Kishi of the impact of the transgression, and wanting to see what would follow. Again the red light flashed and this time with increased frequency. The student felt obligated to warned Kishi again that E.J. is busy and this means “not now”. Kishi, finding some sense of satisfation on the student’s apparent uneasiness of what had transpired in the past 20 to 30 seconds pounded even louder on the door. The student not understanding what was going on stood there frozen in fear and unable to move while Kishi stepped back against the wall and let the event he set into motion ensue. E.J., clearly upset that the red light was not sufficient in sending his caller away, opened the door ready to let someone, anyone, have it, so to speak. The student was there, feet glued to the floor, awaiting E.J.s onsluaght-a veritable deer in the head lights. Kishi, unable to contain himself began to laugh in his familiar way, wheezing while shaking his head sdie to side (think Precious the dog from Hong Kong Fouey). Immediately E.J. saw Kishi standing there, as well as the ashened faced student. Without hesitation E.J. dimissed the student and graciously invited Kishi into his office, himself realizing some gratification in that the student was shaken.

I’m a little conflicted as to what to think of the system.  On one hand, you have to admire the objectivity and fairness  of it.  Assuming Corey didn’t have a secret camera pointed at the entrance to his office, anyone could make it inside to chat with the Nobel laureate—it was just a matter of whether he was busy or not.  On the other hand, there is something degrading about having to obey a traffic signal in a hallway.  I don’t think you can make an argument that it saves any time, because Corey still has to stop whatever it is he’s doing inside to respond to the requests to enter.  (Again, I am making an assumption that he doesn’t flip a switch when he’s busy such that any requests to enter are automatically red lighted).

I prefer the system of my undergrad boss.  His office door was open 99% of the time he was inside, and if he was busy, he’d just say so and arrange to talk to you later.  Open doors provide one less psychological barrier to communication, and that’s definitely a good thing between advisors and students.

Here are some other pics taken on my jaunt through the Corey lab (way back in 2006):

Photo of E.J. Corey's Office Door and Traffic Light

E.J. Corey Lab Sign

E.J. Corey Lab Sign

E.J. Corey Lab Sign

E.J. Corey Lab Sign

E.J. Corey Lab Fridge

The Wayback Machine archive of the original post is here.

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?