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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 16, 2004

The Dull Edge of Nanotech

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Posted by Derek

There's a type of paper that's showing up often in the major chemistry journals these days, and it's a type that didn't even exist a few years ago. I can't count the number of reports of nanometer-sized structures that have been described recently. Rods, filaments, sheets, cylinders, shells - you name it and someone's got it. That inorganic salt plugging up your filter? Turns out it's not just an annoyance, it's a publishable nanostructure!

On one level you can see why this happens, with all the publicity that nanotechnology has these days. But that's not what most of the papers are really about. No particular use or general principles are suggested, for the most part, just "We found these things, and they look like this." (You can spot these papers quickly in the abstracts at the front of the journals, because they're invariably illustrated with a photomicrograph of the new structure.)

There's a place for that kind of paper, naturally, but are there dozens of places? Some of these things may turn out to be useful, or at least point the way to something useful, but for now they're largely just being described as curiosities, and they're being published because - well, because they can be. Perhaps some of these groups are hoping that someone, someday, will make a breakthrough that makes their paper look ahead of its time.

The techniques to look for these structures have been around for some years, so it's not like we're just now able to see them. It's just that up until recently, no one has cared all that much. I have to wonder what would have happened if someone had submitted a paper to JACS fifteen years ago about, say, scandium salts that form nanoscale helices when precipitated out just so. Would the editors and reviewers have known what to make of it? Or would they have tossed it back, telling the authors to come back when they had more to say?

There's a lot of serious nanotech work being done in chemistry, but this stuff isn't it. I have to think that these papers are going to look a bit strange and dated in coming years, once this stamp-collecting phase passes. When will the editors at the likes of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the Journal of Organic Chemistry, Organic Letters,and Angewandte Chemiecall a halt?

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News | The Scientific Literature


1. qetzal on June 16, 2004 10:57 PM writes...

Reminds me of being in grad school, when DNA sequencing was still pretty new. (I even did some of the old Maxam-Gilbert chemical degradation sequencing as a student, right before the polymerase methods got really big.)

Anyway, for a while, all you needed to get a pub in J Mol Biol or Proc Natl Acad Sci or, of course, Gene was to sequence some random gene.

Took a while, but eventually editors started insisting that there had to actually be something interesting about the sequence. Otherwise, all you could do is add it to GenBank.

And here we are, 20 years later, and you can barely make a splash any more even if you sequence some organism's whole genome! Now, not just any organism will do, it had better be an interesting one.

Makes you wonder what they'll be publishing in the nanotech journals in 20 years.

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2. The Un-Candidate on June 16, 2004 11:07 PM writes...

Uh-oh, Derek! Now you've done it. Reynolds will call you a Luddite, name an award after you and the nanites will be upon you in no time.

After seeing some people that I know submit really remarkable work and get rejected by JACS, I'm thinking their article choices are affected far more by fashion than anything else.

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3. Dave on June 17, 2004 9:18 AM writes...

I agree! I used to be able to pick up an issue of JACS or ACIE and find 5-10 interesting and useful articles (at least relevant to an orgo guy). Now I'm lucky to find 2-3.

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4. M. Parker on June 17, 2004 10:58 AM writes...

It reminds me a bit of the birth of combinatorial chemistry. In the early days, you could get a quick paper by doing some mundane chemistry in a combinatorial fashion. The usefulness of those papers was the demonstration of the flexibility of the new techniques. The papers, though having little intrinsic value, encouraged the rapid incorporation of combinatorial techniques into more traditional endeavors - and therefore provided a service to the community of synthetic organic chemists.

Because of the first papers, those techniques are now used widely for purposes that do have significant scientific or technological value.

Similarly, recent reports on "nanostructures" may serve the purpose of familiarizing the scientific community of the variety of possible structures out there and how easy they are to obtain. That may in turn encourage others to use these techniques in more valuable scientific endeavors, which might not have occured otherwise.

But I guess the question at hand is, Have we reached the saturation point yet, in which additional publicity will have minimal additional returns?

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5. SRC on June 17, 2004 12:31 PM writes...

I think the difference is that combinatorial chemistry papers exemplified techniques, whereas most of the nanostructures papers are one-offs of a particular compound. They're butterfly collecting, in essence.

Every field starts off with a taxonomic phase, I guess, but it's time for someone to pore over the butterflies, organize them into genera, and formulate some falsifiable hypotheses concerning their origin and/or interrelationships. That, or quit publishing them.

I fully agree with Derek on this one, and further suspect that this stuff gets published because a) it's fashionable, and b) it yields intriguing Escher-like photos that give an artsy feel to a journal.

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