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To Chem, or not “Too Chem”? That is the #ChemNobel Question


To chem or not -quite- too chem, that is the ChemNobel question:
Whether ’tis Nobeler in the mind to suffer
The curly arrows of organic fortune
Or to take rays against a sea of crystals
And by diffracting end them.

Me (With sincere apologies to WS)

Every year, in late September -like most chemists- I try to guess who will become the next Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. Also, every year, in early October -like most chemists- I participate in the awkward and pointless discussion of whether the prize was actually awarded to chemistry or not. Indeed, the Nobel prize for chemistry commonly stirs a conversation of whether the accomplishments being recognized lie within the realm of chemistry or biology whenever biochemistry shows its head, however shyly; but the task of dividing chemistry into sub-disciplines raises an even deeper question about the current validity of dividing science into broad branches in the first place and then further into narrower sub-disciplines.

I made a very lazy histogram of all the 178 Laureates since 1904 to 2017 based on subjective and personal categories (figure 1), and the creation of those categories was in itself an exercise in science contemplation. My criteria for some of the tough ones was the following: For instance, if it dealt with phenomena of atomic or sub-molecular properties (Rutherford 1908, Hahn 1944, Zewail 1999) then I placed it in the Chemical Physics category but if it dealt with an ensemble of molecules (Arrhenius 1903, Langmuir 1932, Molina 1995) then Physical Chemistry was chosen. Some achievements were about generating an analysis technique which then became essential to the development of chemistry or any of its branches but not for a chemical process per se, those I placed into the Analytical Chemistry box, like last year’s 2017 prize for electron cryo-microscopy (Dubochet, Frank, Henerson) or like 1923 prize to Fritz Pregl for “the invention of the method of microanalysis of organic substances” for which the then head of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, O. Hammarsten, pointed out that the prize was awarded not for a discovery but for modifying existing methods (which sounds a lot like a chemistry disclaimer to me). One of the things I learnt from this  exercise is that subdividing chemistry became harder as the time moved forward which is a natural consequence of a more complex multi- and interdisciplinary environment that impacts more than one field. Take for instance the 2014 (Super Resolved Fluorescence Microscopy) and 2017 (Cryo-Electron Microscopy) prizes; out of the six laureates, only William Moerner has a chemistry related background a fact that was probably spotted by Milhouse Van Houten (vide infra).

Some of the ones that gave me the harder time: 1980, Gilbert and Sanger are doing structural chemistry by means of developing analytical techniques but their work on sequencing is highly influential in biochemistry that they went to the latter box; The same problem arose with Klug (1982) and the Mullis-Smith duo (1993). In 1987, the Nobel citation for Supramolecular Chemistry (Lehn-Cram-Pedersen) reads “for their development and use of molecules with structure-specific interactions of high selectivity.”, but I asked myself, are these non-covalent-bond-forming reactions still considered chemical reactions? I want to say yes, so placed the Lehn-Cram-Pedersen trio in the Synthesis category. For the 1975 prize I was split so I split the prizes and thus Prelog (stereochemistry of molecules) went into the Synthesis category (although I was thinking  in terms of organic chemistry synthesis) and Cornforth (stereochemical control of enzymatic reactions) went into biochem. So, long story short, chemistry’s impact in biology has always had a preponderant position for the selection of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, although if we fuse the Synthesis and Inorganic Chemistry columns we get a fairly even number of synthesis v biochemistry prizes.

Hard as it may be to fit a Laureate into a category, trying to predict the winners and even bet on it adds a lot of fun to the science being recognized. Hey! even The Simpsons did it with a pretty good record as shown below. Just last week, there was a very interesting and amusing ACS Webinar where the panelist shared their insights on the nomination and selection process inside the Swedish Academy; some of their picks were: Christopher Walsh (antibiotics); Karl Deisseroth (optogenetics); Horwich and Hartl (chaperon proteins); Robert Bergman (C-H activation); and John Goodenough (Li-ion batteries). Arguably, the first three of those five could fit the biochem profile. From those picks the feel-good prize and my personal favorite is John Goodenough not only because Li-ion batteries have shaped the modern world but because Prof. Goodenough is 96 years old and still very actively working  in his lab at UT-Austin (Texas, US) #WeAreAllGoodEnough. Another personal favorite of mine is Omar Yaghi not only for the development of Metal-Organic-Frameworks (MOFs) but for a personal interaction we had twenty years ago that maybe one day I’ll recount here but for now I’ll just state the obvious: MOFs have shown a great potential for applications in various fields of chemistry and engineering but perhaps they should first become highly commercial for Yaghi to get the Nobel Prize.

simpson_betting_poll_-_h_-_2016

W.E. Moerner and B.L. Feringa are now Nobel Laureates. Zare and Moerner have worked in spectroscopy whereas Feringa and Sonogashira are deep into synthesis

Some curiosities and useless trivia: Fred Sanger is the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry twice. Marie Curie is the only person to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes in different scientific categories (Physics and Chemistry) and Linus Pauling was awarded two distinct Nobel Prizes (Chemistry and Peace). Hence, three out of the four persons ever to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes did it at least once in chemistry – the fourth is John Bardeen two times recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Of course the first thing I’ll do next Wednesday right after waking up is checking who got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018 and most likely the second thing will be going to my Twitter feed and react to it, hopefully the third will be to blog about it.

The announcement is only two days away, who is your favorite?

#WeAreAllGoodEnough

 

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The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013


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.

Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 2013 (source: NBC.com)

Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 2013 (source: NBC.com)

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!)

#RealTimeChem – Happy birthday DNA!


What a happy coincidence -if indeed it was- that #RealTimeChem week happened to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the three seminal papers published in Nature on this day back in 1953, one of which was co-authored by J. Watson and F. Crick; of course I mean the publication for the first time of the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid, or DNA, as we now call it.

You can get the original Nature papers from 1953 here at: http://www.nature.com/nature/dna50/archive.html (costs may apply)

Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid 737

J. D. WATSON & F. H. C. CRICK
doi:10.1038/171737a0

Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: Molecular Structure of Deoxypentose Nucleic Acids 738
M. H. F. WILKINS, A. R. STOKES & H. R. WILSON
doi:10.1038/171738a0

Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate 740
ROSALIND E. FRANKLIN & R. G. GOSLING
doi:10.1038/171740a0

Nature’s podcast released two episodes (called ‘pastcast’) to celebrate DNA’s structure’s birthday, one of them is an interview with Dr. Raymond Gosling who in 1953 worked under Dr. Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London in diffractometry of biological molecules. If you haven’t listened to them you can get them here at nature.com/nature/podcasts. Of course, the history around the discovery of DNA’s structure is not without controversy and it has been long argued that the work of Franklin and Gossling didn’t get all deserved credit from Watson and Crick. In their paper W&C acknowledge the contribution of the general nature of DNA from the unpublished results by Franklin’s laboratory but that is as far as they went, they didn’t even mention photo 51 which Crick saw at Wilkins laboratory, who in turn got it from Gossling at Franklin’s suggestion. Still, no one can deny that the helical structure with which we are now familiar is their work, and more importantly the discovery of the specific pairing, which according to Gossling was a stroke of genious that probably couldn’t have happened in his own group, but without Franklin’s diffraction and Gossling’s crystallization  there was little they could do. Details about the process used to crystallize DNA can be heard in the aforementioned podcast, along with an inspiring tale of hard work by Dr. Gossling. Go now and listen to it, its truly inspiring.

For me it was not the story of a helix, that I was familiar with; it was the story of the specific pairing of two hélices
– Dr. Raymond Gosling

Famous Photo 51 by Dr. Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling (Source: Wikipedia)

The iconic Photo 51 by Dr. Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling (Source: Wikipedia)

Above, the iconic Photo 51 taken by Franklin and Gossling (have you ever noticed how most scientists refer to Franklin just as Rosalind but no one refers to Watson as James? Gender bias has a role in this tale too) To a trained crystallographer, the helical symmetry is evident from the diffraction pattern but going from Photo 51 to the representation below was the subject of hard work too.

Modern DNA representation (Source: Wikipedia)

Modern DNA representation (Source: Wikipedia)

There are million of pages written during the last 60 years about DNA’s structure and its role in the chemistry of life; the nature of the pairing and the selectivity of base pairs through hydrogen bond interactions, an interaction found ubiquitously in nature; water itself is a liquid due to the intermolecular hydrogen-bonds, which reminds us about the delicate balance of forces in biochemistry making life a delicate matter. But I digress. Millions of pages have been written and I’m no position of adding a meaningful sentence to them; however, it is a fascinating tale that has shaped the course of mankind, just think of the Human Genome Project and all the possibilities both positive and negative! DNA and its discovery tale will continue to amaze us and inspire us, just like in 2011 it inspired the Genetech company to set a Guiness World Record with the largest human DNA helix.

Genetech SF, Cal. USA (Source worldrecordacademy.com)

Genetech SF, Cal. USA (Source worldrecordacademy.com)

Happy birthday, DNA!

Instituto de Química de la UNAM. 70th Anniversary


The Institute of Chemistry of the National Autonomous University of Mexico becomes 70 years old this month, and to kickoff the year round celebrations our institution has organized a series of lectures with the notable presence of Nobel Laureate, and former student of this institute, prof. Dr. Mario Molina whose presence has become ubiquitous within the Mexican scientific community events given his status. His presence is also relevant under the scope of the new branch of Instituto de Química, which is the Joint Center for Research in Sustainable Chemistry from which I write these lines. I have many fond memories of the time I spent there as a grad student; I specially miss the beautiful area on campus on which it’s located next to the buildings of other science institutes.

The lectures to be given are the following, click on them to download a small abstract from each:

Prof. Christer B. Aakeröy (Kansas State University)
“Supramolecular chemistry of co-crystals: From molecular dating to improved pharmaceuticals”

Prof. Wilhelm Boland (Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology)
“Sequestration of plant-derived glycosides by leaf beetles: a model system for evolution and adaptation of chemical defenses”

Prof. Rathnam Chaguturu (University of Kansas)
“Strategies for Uncorking the Drug Discovery Bottleneck: A Latin American Perspective”
References

Prof. A. M. Echavarren Pablos (Institut Català d’Investigació Química)
“New Gold-Catalyzed Reactions of Enynes and Beyond”

Prof. Bern Kohler (Montana State University)
“Four billion years of fun in the sun: How ultrafast events protect DNA from deadly UV rays”

Hopefully this time I will get to do a follow up (I still owe a follow up on last December’s symposium on Green Chemistry here at CCIQS)

And now gather ’round for some history!

The Institute of Chemistry (Instituto de Química) was founded on April 5th 1941 with the mission of organizing the -then small- existent chemistry community in Mexico. Since three years before that, former President Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated oil wells and refineries from foreign companies, there was a strong need for more specialized human resources in the different areas of chemistry who could develop our incipient  petrochemical industry. Thus, one of the first tasks of Instituto de Química was to develop a method which could provide all tetraethyllead (IV), an organomettallic compound which was used as an antiknock additive in gasolines, way before it was banned for being highly toxic.

Tetraethyllead - now toxic, this was an important component in gasoline as well as in other fuels

One of the major historical contributions of Instituto de Química was the work of Dr. Luis Miramontes (1925 – 2005), who worked in the development of the synthesis of progestin, a synthetic hormone which was used in the first oral contraceptive*; an amazing achievement for a 26 year old doctor! Along with Dr. Miramontes, Dr. George (now named Jorge, although née György in Hungarian) Rosenkranz, from the pharmaceutical company Syntex and Dr. Carl Djerassi, who is called the father of the pill, this enormous scientific but specially social groundbreaking achievement was accomplished. It has long being argued that a Nobel Prize should have been awarded to this international trio of chemists, but nevertheless worldwide recognition is due.

Dr. Luis Miramontes ca. 1951

*Miramontes L; Rosenkranz G; Djerassi C. 1951 Journal Of The American Chemical Society 73 (7): 3540-3541 Steroids .22. The Synthesis Of 19-Nor-Progesterone

Many are the achievements of Instituto de Química on many different branches of science; from synthetic organic chemistry to natural products research. The institute has hold six Professors Emeritus so far and continues to be one of the leading chemistry research facilities not only in Mexico and Latin America but in the world. Keeping track of our history helps us maintain our identity as scientists as well as to preserve our cultural heritage, all which in turn allows us to find paths into the future so we may keep on doing the inspirational science our country, and the world, needs. Many are also the issues on which we have to work in order to keep it competitive and to bring it back to the cutting edge of science. The research staff of the institute is highly committed to achieve so in the next few years by developing both relevant scientific knowledge and human resources who can make further contributions to the advancement of chemistry, and science in general, whithin our country.

This year is a year of chemical celebrations: From the International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2011) to the 7oth anniversary of Instituto de Química, as well as the 95th anniversary of the Chemistry School also at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. So ¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Instituto de Química!

Thanks for reading, rating and commenting!

Main entrance of the institute and current staff (well, most of it anyway)

2011, International Year of Chemistry

It’s that time of the year again… The Nobel Prizes


Around early October the scientific community -or at least part of it- starts getting excited about what could be considered the most prestigious award a scientist could ever achieve: The Nobel Prize.

The three categories that interest me the most are: Chemistry, Physics and Literature. I’m not saying I don’t care for the other three (well, maybe the one in economy is way out of my league to grasp) but these three are the ones that always arouse my curiosity. This year laureates have really had me excited! For starters, in chronological order of announcement, Geim and Novoselov seem to be quite younger than the average recipient (52 and 36 years old, respectively). But so is the field for what they got it since the first paper these two scientists from the University of Manchester published on the topic is only about six years old. Discovery of Graphene and most importantly the characterization and understanding of its properties is one of the most promising areas in materials sciences since graphene exhibits very interesting electronic as well as structural behaviors. Nobel prizes are always controversial, but we have to admit that although graphite has been around us for ages, these two England-based Russian scientist have kicked off a promising area of science that will no doubt contribute to further technological developments we can only begin to imagine.

On the other hand, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Heck, Negishi and Suzuki for their work on Pd (palladium) catalyzed coupling reactions. What I liked the most about this prize is that a few years ago I published alongside Dr. David Morales-Morales from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a paper in J. Molecular Cat. A., in which we performed  a systematic study of a phosphane-free Heck reaction for a series of Pd catalysts with the general formula [ArFNH]PdCl2 (ArFNH = Fluorinated or polyfluorinated aniline). In this paper theoretical calculations were used to assess the relationship between the substitution pattern in fluorinated anilines upon the catalyst’s eficiency, a sort of small quantum-QSAR. Another thing that got me (and a bunch of other chemists) excited was the fact that this year the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to people working in old fashioned synthetic chemistry, so to speak. Recently a long list of researchers working on the field of BIO-chemistry were awarded the prestigious prize, which comes to no surprise since the development of the Human Genome Project has, and will continue to have, a huge impact in biotechnology. Be that as it may, good for Heck, Suzuki and Negishi and the Pd-catalyzed-carbon-carbon-bond-forming-reactions!

About my initial remark: For reasons I don’t know (I wont subscribe to any of the existing urban-legend-level hypothesis) there is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics, although a lot of mathematicians have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economical Sciences. For mathematicians the Fields Medal would be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. However, the Fields Medal is only awarded every four years. Four years ago, this captivating character named Grigori “Grisha” Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal for solving what the Clay Institute in Massachusetts deemed one of the problems of the millennium: The Poincare Conjecture. What is so noteworthy is that Grisha (diminutive for Grigori in Russian) rejected the medal as well as the million dollars awarded by the Clay Institute for solving it. He also rejected a position at Princeton University. His lack of faith in any institution was also reflected in his work, since he did not publish his solution to Poincare’s conjecture in any peer reviewed journal but instead uploaded it on-line and alerted some notorious mathematicians he had worked with in the past about it. Secluded in his St. Petersburg apartment, this remarkable fourty year old, Rasputin-looking-genius, mathematician keeps rejecting not only all fame, money and glory but human contact altogether. It is said that at some point Sir Isaac Newton did the same thing. I guess great minds do think alike.

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