Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Whitesides' Chemical Future

As part of the "Future of Chemistry" essays sponsored by BASF, professor George Whitesides opines in Angewandte Chemie Int'l Edition that chemistry must change in order to keep pace with societal demands and changing scientific landscapes. 

Familiar themes pepper his prose: the tension between "curiosity-driven" and "directed" research, between organizational behavior, motives, and rewards, and several pressing calls to action. After setting some ground rules and introducing us to his main actors - academia, industry, and government - George shifts his essay towards some familiar* grand challenges:
"What is called 'chemistry' now may only be a distant cousin to the chemistry of 50 years from now."
Origin of Life. Informatics. Energy generation, storage, and usage. Cognition. Human augmentation. Death. In twenty-two points, he covers the entire human experience from life to death, from single cells to complex global societies, then leaves himself two outs: numbers 23 ("All the rest") and 24 ("Combinations with adjacent fields").
"Chemistry tends to be excessively modest in its ambitions. Excessive ambition might sometimes be a better strategy."
Hold on for a minute...anyone feel a strange sense of déjà vu? For the past three decades, Whitesides has been in the business of not just inventing the future, but actively predicting it as he goes:

2013: Reinventing Chemistry - RSC Roadshow
2013: Memo to Chemists: Move Away from the Molecule
2013: A Glimpse Into the Future of Diagnostics
2012: Whitesides on Discovery and Development
2011: Whitesides & Deutch on What's Wrong with Academia
2011: Chemistry and the Worm
2010: Towards a Science of Simplicity
2007: Revolutions in Science
2004: Assumptions: Taking Chemistry in New Directions
2001: The Once and Future Nanomachine
1999: Complexity in Chemistry
1995: Holy Grails of Chemistry
1990: What Will Chemistry Do in the Next 20 Years?
1988: Materials for Advanced Electronic Devices - Chemistry for the Future
1986: The Role of Chemistry in Materials Science

Certainly, this essay reads like anything other than a traditional chemistry text. We hear about chemical granfalloons** -- who are synthetic organic chemists, anyway? -- catalytic networks, Facebook and Twitter ("avatars of social engineering"), and even the rather Huxleyan concept of population control. Pasteur's quadrant, aka the choice of research that solves social problems while inventing fundamentally new science, represents for Whitesides the idealized goal, though he admits we're presently much more stuck in the "Liebig apprentice model" of traditional research groups.

Especially resonant for me were the areas Whitesides identifies at collaborative interfaces: megacity logistics and cancer prevention involve far more cooperation along "unfamiliar boundaries" than I had perhaps realized: social, environmental, computational, psychological, and (of course) chemical.

Flying cars - Still not a priority for chemists...yet.
Source: Terrafugia

I found Whitesides' friendly, casual conversation with the reader, breaking down traditional scientific narrative for a personal exchange, rather refreshing. You can actually hear him speaking through the page, his calm, familiar cadence and confident, challenging affect. Recall that George himself has opined often on just how to communicate scientifically; looks like he indeed follows his own presciptions.

I recommend a full read-through for those so inclined. I'll close this meta-review with two points. First, a strong piece of advice from Whitesides' 2007 Priestly Medal address:
"Chemists are the natural leaders for much of the research that needs to be done. But physicists can learn molecular detail, and biologists can learn differential equations. If we do not wish to work on these problems, others certainly do. If it is not our revolution, it will be someone else's."
Finally, Whitesides offers a poignant answer to the age-old stuck-on-an-airplane question: What do chemists do? I won't give away the answer here, but suffice to say it's both more direct and more engaging than how I've traditionally answered. Go have a look.

*So familiar, in fact, that he references two of his own previous predictive essays. See also, from Philip Ball, here
**I'll follow professor Whitesides' daring example of directly citing Wikipedia for this Vonnegut quote.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Wilder 'Chemistry' from 1880

What was the first mention of "Chemistry" in the journal Science?

You might think, given that Science started in 1880, that an author would first refer to 19th-century champions such as Perkin or Wöhler. Perhaps they'd write of new fuels for transportation, electrochemistry, or the advent of large chemical industries such as BASF or DuPont.

None of these. On page 4, issue 1, famed comparative anatomist and professor Burt Wilder writes:
"A Bit of Summer Work: Notwithstanding the number of 'Summer Schools of Science' to be in operation this season, many teachers are likely to pass the vacation at a distance from the facilities afforded by organized laboratories. How shall they employ their time?  
. . .the teacher who hopes to make his instruction each year more thorough than the last, will be pretty sure to spend the remaining month or two in the search of help from books, and, while regretting the vagueness of the information thus obtained, may seldom think of making it more real by personal observation. 
Now it is true that in some branches of science this may require appliances not readily obtained. This is the case with Chemistry and Physics, and some parts of Natural History. But Botany and Entomology may be pursued almost under any circumstances, and I venture to suggest that at least one kind of anatomical work may be carried on with but a slight amount of apparatus."
Wilder's cure for teachers' potential summer slacking? Purchasing "a very sharp knife, and a pair of 'wire-nippers'..." - all the better to study the (freshly-dissected) brains* of cats, sheep, dogs, and rabbits. He closes his essay with this potentially tongue-in-cheek phrase:
"If this is done, by the end of summer the teacher will have become better able to appreciate the peculiarities of the human brain when one comes in his way..."

*Pssst! Did you need instructions for that? Wilder generously provides an address at Cornell where one can obtain hectograph (printing by means of aniline dyes and gelatin plates) copies of cat dissection protocol.

Beautiful Chemistry: Hoye's HDDA + Napth Trap

Every so often, a reaction behaves so well that you just publish the crude NMR spectrum.
Professor Tom Hoye's HDDA* reaction, first reported in 2012, apparently fits the bill rather well, wouldn't you say?

From Org. Lett. 2015, ASAP.

Amazing - heat up a heavily conjugated triyne for 2 days, and it just does one thing, reproducibly and immaculately. I wonder whether Hoye and his group have any further tricks up their sleeve to try and control the diastereo  enantioselectivity of that sweet new quaternary center...time will tell.

*Please allow me touch of professional jealousy - this reaction opened up so many different questions for the Hoye group that they've published 10 manuscripts on it in just the last 3 years. Damn.

**Perhaps I've developed a love affair with barrelenes. Hmm.

Thanks for the catch, Per-Ola!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Oxidase Toolkit: C-H Azidation

Do you ever stare at your late-stage molecules, thinking "They're almost perfect, but I really wish I could add an amine right over there." Thanks to a new reaction, you might soon be able to.

Reporting in NatureJohn Hartwig and coworkers have cracked the case: a mixture of iron (II), a tridentate nitrogen ligand, and a modified Togni reagent Zhdankin reagent reliably functionalize tertiary C-H bonds with an azide(N3 group). The selectivity, yield, and mild conditions match pretty well with White's C-H oxidation, which utilized a similar catalytic manifold.

Hartwig's initial targets for this new reaction include two modified steroids and a gibberellic acid derivative. Sadly, precious few heteroatoms exist in these molecules to gum up the ironworks, but I'm certain they'll address that in the full paper. I'd especially like to point readers to Figure 3, in which the group shows subsequent transformations: heterocycle formation, amine reduction, chemical ligation, and capping with fluorescent tags.

These two reactions together, along with a variety of C-H halogenations and sulfidations, seem to support the growing "oxidase phase" approach to total synthesis. One could imagine that, in a few years, a naked carbon scaffold could be suitably decorated with O, N, S, or X at positions of the scientists' choosing. Wow.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Another Year, More Chemophobia

Over the holiday break, a few people sent me pictures and links to demonstrate that we still have plenty to do to counter chemophobia in 2015. Here's a sampling:

1. U.S. FDA Cancer ad. Have you seen these pictures around airports, bus stations, and subways? This one - which I'm sure is equally supposed to simultaneously discourage youth smoking (while reminding them of Sauron from Lord of the Rings) appeared in my inbox a few days ago:

Nothing like some straight-up chemophobia from Big Government.

2. Health beans - now chemical-free!

Thank Goodness that 'omega fatty acids' or 'vital antioxidants' aren't chemicals!*

3. Microwaving'll kill ya. As a throwaway line in the Newsweek article interviewing famous futurists about whether or not Back to the Future Part II accurately predicted the future, Syd Mead, a "visual futurist" who designs sets for sci-fi movies, said this:
"No, I don’t remember [how the film depicted food]. I hope it wasn’t pills. [laughs] That was a fixture in future films. Popping steak or spinach or whatever in a pill. I hope it never comes to that."
"Microwave dinners are bad enough. Of course, microwave upsets the molecular structure of food, which isn’t too terribly healthy."
I've heard these arguments before, but neither one makes any sense. Healthy people routinely take all sorts of food supplements in "pill form" - vitamins, curcumin, antioxidants, essential oils - the list goes on and on. And as far as I'm aware, microwaves can't actually "upset" (change) the molecular structure of food.

Reminder: Syd consults for science fiction movies. We have a lot of work to do.
*Yes they are.

Chemistry Photo-Op

Carrying high-resolution cameras in our collective pockets has spawned a new age of lab photography. Witness Chemistry in Pictures, the official American Chemical Society Tumblr site. There you’ll find mazelike porphyrin crystals (below), glowing TLC plates, and ultralight aerogels poised atop fragile flowers.

Credit: Anna Slater | Chemical & Engineering News Tumblr

Want to dive even deeper into the laboratory? Kristof Hegedus has you covered: his aptly-named site Photos from an Organic Chemistry Laboratory brings forth reaction gifs, failed black tars, and icy fractals of crystalline intermediates. Perhaps your interests lean towards chemical education – the picture blog for you is Picture It… Based out of the University of Bristol, and freely available for re-use through Creative Commons, the authors overlay well-posed plants, foods, and common substances alongside their constituent molecules. 

Finally, for the effete artiste, we present Beautiful Chemistry. A joint venture of Tsinghua University Press and the University of Science and Technology in China, this site has it all: Priestly’s apparatus, HD videos of crystal growth, and animated DNA nanostructures. A true treat for the chemically and artistically inclined.

Chemistry Bumper Cars, 2015-2016

In the age of Google and Glassdoor, hiring has become a year-round activity. Postdocs and grads alike should keep their ears to the wall, since nowadays any group meeting could list "Relocation" on the agenda...

From June 2014 - December 2014, comments, search engines, rumours, and tweets noted 50 faculty moves and 119 new faculty starts for academic chemists. I've started another page simply because the flow hasn't stopped; perhaps I should start up a database for next year?

**Know of someone missing? Let me know in the comments!


Roman Manetsch (South Florida to Northeastern)    thanks, Andrii!
Jeff Aube (Kansas to UNC)   thanks, Ziegler!
Erin Johnson (UC-Merced to Dalhousie)    thanks, Anon Feb 4!
E. Johan Foster (Fribourg to Virginia Tech)    thanks, Anon Feb 10!

Pending Confirmation

Wes Bernskoetter (Brown to Mizzou)

New Hires

Kyle Bantz (Virginia Military Institute)
Katherine Mullaugh (College of Charleston)
Jaclyn Winter (Utah School of Medicine)
Sereina Riniker (ETH)
Isaac Garcia-Bosch (Southern Methodist University)
Charles Sing (UIUC)
David Lacy (U Buffalo)
Steven Ray (U Buffalo)
Alexey Akimov (U Buffalo)
Jonathan Moerdyk (Seton Hill)
Aaron Rossini (Iowa State)
Alexander Speed (Dalhousie)
Bruno Correia (EPFL)
Gerald Knizia (Penn State)
Gavin Tsui (CUHK)
Basil Hubbard (Alberta)
Justin Wilson (Cornell)
Robert DiStasio, Jr. (Cornell)
Michelle Personick (Wesleyan)

Pending Confirmation

Joseph Topczewski (Minnesota)
Ellen Matson (Rochester)

Note: I'm drawing the line for recommended faculty moves on December 31, 2014. Rather artificial, I know, but I had to stop somewhere!

For 2012-2013 moves, click here
For 2014-2015 moves, click here.