The Role of Humans in Chemistry

Bruce Gibb brings us a wonderful analysis of the role of non-scientific factors in scientific policy this month in Nature Chemistry. A representative excerpt follows:

But whatever you can reasonably do to try and shift the statistics in your favour, do it. Time the meeting with your boss, time your organic class filled with pre-medical students and time your general exam to just after feeding time. And if you believe in a higher deity, pray that your grant application will be reviewed just after everyone who reviews it is well sated. Going back to the general exam scenario, meta-considerations about the committee’s stomach contents may not help you if you start a flow of electrons in a mechanism you are drawing by depicting an arrow emanating from a proton. And to switch scenarios again, it may not help you if the boss who is hopefully going to okay your plan had one too many the night before because their beloved pet recently passed away. But it can’t hurt.

Everyone always makes the comments along the lines of “Oh, I would have been able to X if I had only not stayed up so late/not skipped lunch/not had that curmudgeonly synthesis professor with the impressive moustache,” and, excusing a certain amount of whining, there’s some truth to it. Whenever anyone asks me for advice about how to go about applying to graduate school, I generally respond that whether or not you will get in is already predetermined by the greater good, but that you had better hope that no one’s in a bad mood when the admissions committee gets your application.

However, I’m interested in the greater ramifications of how these little things add up over the course of one’s career to make them who they are. The classic example, in my opinion, is the chemist responsible for:

-Coining the term “bond”

-Singlehandedly inventing the field of organometallics (organozinc reagents, specifically), coining the term as well

-Developing the idea behind “valency”

-Revolutionizing chemical education in the 1800’s

-Cleaning up the River Thames, preventing an urban pandemic

If you’re thinking, “Man, Kekule did all that?” then you, sir or madam, have fallen victim to the 1800’s German Hype Machine. The chemist that I refer to is Sir Edward Frankland, a chemist with achievements coming out of every orifice, yet his Wikipedia page (above) is shorter than that for I Can Has Cheezburger?

Sir Edward Frankland, ca 1852

How did Eddie fall so far by the wayside? Well, a read through his biography reveals that he began his organic chemistry career as an analyst, made the queer choice of being the only English chemist of the 1800’s to pursue a doctorate in  Germany, and abandoned a postdoctoral position with a prominent chemist several days after joining to take an academic position at a new university that shortly became defunct. Further, once he managed to move to a more prestigious position, he spent less time doing fundamental research and more time acting as a consultant, gave up some responsibilities for his ailing wife, and began working in more applied areas of chemistry later in his career. Meanwhile, his contemporary the German powerhouse Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz began commenting on many of the same topics, many of which we now (incorrectly) attribute to him.

Kekule, whose beard is one of the few subjects in which he legitimately outdid Frankland

And why is that? Part of it is because Frankland was notoriously disliked, but many of the things I describe above have been parodied in modern scenarios. How many of us end up foregoing an academic career for our families? How often do we realize that we need money more than we need prestige and take the more practical path? How many of us change paths later in our careers, only to look back and wonder what would have happened if we had only stayed on the original path? Even having one’s work misattributed happens ever-so-frequently; did MacMillan really invent organocatalysis (answer: no), or was he simply the one most in the spotlight when people started noticing the field? Is Dieter Seebach the modern Edward Frankland (answer: no), or is there more at work?

Going back to Gibb’s points at the beginning of this rant, these decisions plague us on a daily basis, and many of them are foregone conclusions, others are negligible, but can we take all of these things in stride? How many little inconveniences can a person tolerate before they end up veering off the path? How many risks can we take before we end up worse than when we started?

Basically, what I’m saying is that, beyond just the science, there is a distinct human element to the field that can make the greatest scientists lose hope too soon and the less capable able to skyrocket past the competition. We’d all like to think that hard work will get us our due rewards, but perhaps we just need to make sure our bosses have a ready supply of cookies before they write our recommendation letters.


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