Last Monday the School of Chemistry at the National Autonomous University of Mexico celebrated 50 years of their modern graduate studies program; as part of the celebrations a formal investiture ceremony for those of us who got our PhD’s after 1990 was organized.
It was a great opportunity to reconect with old friends and teachers, I even got to meet my old high school chemistry teacher, Dr. Salvador Sánchez who in no little way helped me decide to follow chemistry as a career choice, and Dr. Raymundo Cea who was my first thesis director in the first years of this century. The University Rector, Dr. José Narro, gave a speech on the challenges of chemistry in the upcoming years, and Dr. Helgi Jung-Cook spoke about the challenges a PhD student faces and how much rewarding is to finish. Much is yet to be done for the advancement of science in the world and even more in Latin America, but even so UNAM is doing a great effort of keeping a strong base of scientists available for all branches of social development by continuosly supplying the much needed human resources with the highest standards.
In all it was an emotional and inspiring ceremony but above all a fun way to look back to those days in grad school when little happened outside our labs. Thanks to my parents, my sister and my lovely wife and unborn daughter for joining us all in this celebration of Mexican chemistry. (all photo credits: My Dad.)
I’m quite late to jump on this wagon but nonetheless I’m thrilled about this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry being awarded to three awesome computational chemists: Martin Karplus (Harvard), Michael Levitt (Stanford) and Arieh Warshel (USC) for the development of computational models at the service of chemistry; most prominently, the merging of computations both at the classical . and quantum levels, the former allows for a computationally feasible calculation while the latter provides the needed accuracy for the description of a chemical process.
As a computational chemist myself I must say that, at some level, it feels as some sort of vindication of the field, which makes me wonder if it indeed needs it, I don’t think so but maybe some might. Last week, Nobel week, I attended a symposium on the Advances in Quantum Chemical Topology where big names such as Paul Ayers, Paul Popelier and Chérif Matta among many others participated along with my friends and colleagues from CCIQS, Fernando Cortés (whom actually organized the whole thing! Kudos, Fer!) and Vojtech Jancik who contributed to the experimental (X-ray diffraction methods) part of the symposium. Surprisingly nobody at the conferences mentioned the Nobel Prize! Not even during the round table discussion titled “The Future of Quantum Chemical Topology“. At some point during this discussion the issue of usefulness came out. I pointed out chemists have this inherent need of feeling useful, including computational chemists, as opposed to physicists of any denomination. Computational or theoretical chemists try to be like physicists yet still have chemistry behavior baggage. Even more baffling is the fact that at such an abstract conference usefulness is discussed, yet those theoretical chemists who do not develop new methods, nor dwell into equations or propose new Hamiltonians, but rather make use of well established methodologies for tackling and solving particular problems in chemistry become somewhat ostracized by the theoretical chemistry community*.
Much controversy among the comp.chem. community was aroused by this much deserved award (try reading the comment section on this post by the great Derek Lowe at In The Pipeline). Here in Mexico we have a saying: “Ni son todos los que están ni están todos los que son” which is hard to translate given the two different meanings of the verb To Be, but it can be roughly translated as “Not all the ones who should be are present, nor the ones that are present are all that should be“, or something like that. Of course there are many other computational chemists that are left behind from this prestigious prize, but the contributions of Karplus, Levitt and Warshel to chemistry through the use of computational chemistry can be denied. In fact this does vindicate the field of comp.chem. by acknowledging the importance of modelling in molecular design and reactivity understanding.
Congratulations from a Mexican fan to Professors Karplus, Levitt and Warshel for the most deserved Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013!
PS a much better post on this topic can be found at the curious wavefunction.
Thanks for reading, liking, rating and commenting
*Of course this is just my opinion and views (which is redundant to state since this is my very own blog!)
If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then wasting a collective mind is an even more terrible thing. During the past weekend the library at the institute of chemistry suffered a flood caused by a broken pipe just above it, which incidentally happens to be the lab were I used to work as an undergrad student. When it comes to scientific journals, our institute still relies a lot on paper issues for the oldest numbers; we can order them online but it’s just easier to Xerox it at the library if you really need to read that old reference.
This morning the librarians were appalled when noticed not only the huge puddle on the floor but all the books and scientific journals that were dripping water from the shelves. The broken pipe has been fixed and the water on the floor has been mopped. It is now the books the ones that suffer the aftermath of this accident. Not only saving the information was important; wet paper is a great culture media for fungi which in turn could pose a health threat to all users. The administrative staff immediately got to work in recruiting academics and students to help the drying process: “Heal a book!“, they informally called it. Everyone grabbed an item and with the help of industrial blow dryers – the kind we use in chemistry labs to dry wet glassware – and an extraordinary amount of paper towels, each person got to dry the journals page by page.
I got an item that corresponded to the British journal New Scientist, which consisted of about fifteen issues from the year 1980. When I noticed the title in my hand I wanted to switch it. Should we save first those journals with the highest impact factor? or should we work on those that are most relevant to our own research? Should we throw away Chemical Abstracts now that the whole database is online? After all, New Scientist is a magazine which summarizes research that has already been peer reviewed and published; it is journalistic work, not peer reviewed science. But I was afraid to look pedantic so I got to work on drying it.
Each person had their own technique. Some journals had their binding covers still in good shape so they were placed open standing on the floor in front of fans. Some placed paper towels carefully between pages and after a while they would remove them and then use the blow dryer. I thought that if I heated the edges of the paper and thus dried them, capillarity would drive the moisture in the innermost part of each page outwards. Didn’t quite work, at least not in a pragmatic time scale, so I went back to page by page.
I’m glad I did so. That way I was able to find some real pieces of history which could make any scientist nostalgic. For example: I took these photos with my iPod, and if you are by any chance reading this piece on an iPhone, you must find the following picture about Swedish research endearing.
Yes, online doodling games were already a thought back in 1980!
Are you subscribed to this blog? That means you got a notification by e-mail. So what? No big deal! Well, back in 1980 Britain was getting excited over a new form of comunication called the ‘Electronic Mail’ (available only at a couple of post offices). Besides, you wouldn’t have been able to get that message nor read this post on an HP Matrix Machine (you can’t even find a decent link in google about it nowadays!)
But scientists are not all about working, we like games too! So how about purchasing a ‘Hungarian Magic Cube‘ or a ‘Chess Computer‘?
We also love a juicy piece of gossip. For instance, did you know that John Maddox was a controversial editor for Nature back in the 70’s who, as a student, went into chemistry because if he’d gone into physics he could’ve been drafted by the army in WWII to work on radars? Well me neither. But it seems that we should have known who he was, and now we do.
There were many pieces of science news that nearly kept me in the library all night, if not for the fact that I had to drive 50 miles from Mexico City to my place in Toluca, but the one that captured my attention more than any other was the news of a European dream envisioned more than three decades ago; a dream from a group of scientists about looking for answers, like any other group of scientists, answers that are fundamental for the understanding of our universe and the understanding of matter, back when some of the biggest questions hadn’t even been fully posed, this group of visionaries agreed on taking the necessary steps to build an enormous subatomic-particle Supercollider for the European Center for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN.
Back in 1980 I was already alive but I was only two years old. I could barely talk and had no idea what the word ‘future‘ meant, let alone what I’d become when it reached me. Now, even if I’m not a particle physicist I get excited about the news regarding the finding of the Higgs Boson and even if I’m not an astronomer I also get excited about pictures from the Curiosity Rover on Mars. I am a scientist. One out of hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions, and this is part of my collective memory, the memory of the work of those who paved the road for us, those giants upon whose shoulders we struggle day by day to stand with dignity and against all odds. But here is the thing: those giants are actually made of dwarfs, millions of them; millions of us. Thousands and thousands of papers written, reviewed and published; papers that collectively gather the scientific experience summed up in rigorous experiments both successful and failed.
Preserving the information in those wet journals is important despite the fact you can get them all online. I hope one day a bored chemistry grad student goes to the library and browses old issues of New Scientist and other journals just for fun; they’ll go for a trip down a collective Memory Lane which will remind them that if they can dream it in the present, they can make it come true in the future.