A quote from Fritz Haber

I’ve been reading the biography of Fritz Haber (Stoltzenberg) lately, and I stumbled upon this quote. For his doctoral thesis, Haber synthesized a derivative of indigo based on piperonal. In discussing his work, he said to Max Warburg,

The thesis is miserable. One and a half years of new substances prepared like baker’s bread rolls… and in addition, lots of negative results just where I was looking for significant results, and further, results that I cannot even publish because I fear that a competent chemist will find them and prove to me that the camel is missing its humps. One learns to be modest.

This comment on organic synthesis as a field of study is interesting. This “baker’s” mentality to churning out compounds is a very large part of what drove me to study methods and mechanisms, but I have to wonder if it’s a glass half empty situation.

Readers, what do you think? Is organic synthesis just baking rolls, or is there a more delicate art to it? What inspires you to do organic synthesis, or just as importantly, why don’t you (other than being unemployed)?

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8 comments on “A quote from Fritz Haber

  1. See Arr Oh says:

    “Organic Synthesis” = too broad a term to wrap my head around for this particular discussion.

    In every field of human endeavor, there are “bakers” and “thinkers.” Writing? Press releases vs. novels. Architecture? Wal-Marts vs. skyscrapers. To extend the analogy, it’s the old cooks vs. chefs debate all over again.

    Coming back around to chemistry, there’s certainly good questions that haven’t yet been asked. And if you want to “bake bread rolls” by making another drug analog, you can still craft a well-paying career from it.

  2. Chemjobber says:

    I confess that I love the “baking rolls” aspect of it.

  3. Definitely OS is an artform, but only when coupled with the study of mechanisms and retrosynthetic analysis. The way you guys think ahead and protect functional groups is just mind blowing to me. I think the world nowadays tends more towards a more interactive kind of collaboration, namely, us compchems and you working together.

  4. rhwoodman says:

    I majored in microbiology with a minor in chemistry as an undergraduate. I eventually earned a doctorate in biochemistry. I never thought of myself as an organic chemist until I got hired by my present company. I started out doing organic synthesis, and it took me quite awhile to relearn all that “stuff” I had forgotten over the years about organic synthesis. I am fascinated by the mechanisms, planning the syntheses, and executing the plan. If something goes awry, I try to make it a learning experience. However, I also enjoy the “baking rolls” part of it. Since I have had to do both product development and process chemistry, I really enjoy both. There’s a certain comfort (for lack of a better word) in executing a process that I developed and seeing it perform as planned.

    Now I have moved over to the applications development side of the company, and I’m doing lots of research towards developing applications for our products. It’s great fun, mostly biochemistry, but I still love the organic synthesis part of it, and knowing what I know about the organic synthesis part gives me insights into the applications development that I might not otherwise have.

  5. UIUC alum says:

    Another good Haber-centric book is “Alchemy of the Air” by Thomas Hager.

  6. […] at Colorblind Chemistry, I came across a quote from Fritz Haber, writing about his thesis […]

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