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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

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 21, 2004

Le Dernier Cri

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Posted by Derek

Mentioning all the nanostructure papers in the journals brings up the topic of fashions in chemistry. We've got 'em, all right. Waves like this tend to wash over the literature every few years. (I can only speak for organic chemistry, but I assume that it's the same in the other disciplines.)

For example, only in the last couple of years have we begun to escape from the olefin metathesis craze. That's a useful reaction, and I can't make fun of it on its face. But a few years ago, it seemed that everyone with two alkenes in their lab was finding a way to get them in the same flask with some Grubbs catalyst or whatnot. People looked at the reaction and said "Hey, that's neat. I could do that", and they did.

Of course, people also look at these things and think "Hey, that's neat. I could publish that" or "Hey, that's neat. I could get funded for that", and those reasons carry a lot of weight. So journal editors and the reviewers at granting agencies carry some responsibility for these fads, but they're just as human as the rest of us. Most of the time.

These bursts of activity can serve a useful purpose. The state of the art advances rapidly when everyone's trying to improve it, as you'd figure. The best examples of waves of interest have a can-you-top-this quality in them; the worst have a bunch of chemists just doing the same thing because everyone else is doing it.

There are even fashionable molecules, ones that have been synthesized over and over again, because they come in handy to show that your new synthetic method is good for something. (That's not a line of argument that I find very compelling, but it's a common one.) An insect attractant called brevicomin is a good example. I'm sure that I've seen six or eight synthetic routes to that, and it's not like I've been collecting them, either. Twenty years or so ago, the jokes were about a molecule called cis-jasmone, which turned up over and over again when someone wanted to prove their synthetic moves.

But since we're talking about fashion, I should note that the whole field of natural product total synthesis isn't as fashionable as it used to be. That's a larger topic worth a post of its own, but it's something that's had its practioners a bit worried and defensive the last few years.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. The Un-Candidate on June 21, 2004 10:37 AM writes...

What are you talking about!?! It's as relevant as ever! We can solve all sorts of problems through total synthesis!

Oh, wait...

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2. Derek Lowe on June 21, 2004 3:57 PM writes...

As it turns out, I was way too conservative in my estimate in paragraph 5. A quick look through the literature shows at least twenty syntheses of endo- or exo-brevicomin.

I remember hearing a professor in the field express scorn in 1985 at yet another synthesis that had appeared, but clearly a dozen more have shown up since then. It seems that if you have a route to chiral hydroxyaldehydes, you are required by law to synthesize brevicomin.

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