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November 30, 2004
More on Woodward
Speaking of R. B. Woodward brings up the usual question: who's the Woodward of today? (Or, in its alternate form, how come there isn't one?)
He doesn't exist. And I wouldn't stand on one leg waiting for one to appear, either. It's too late in the game for that. Woodward was the perfect man for the moment - a generation earlier and he wouldn't have had the tools he needed, and a generation later he would have had too many.
It's generally assumed that we synthetic chemists can make anything we want to, given enough time and money. That's not completely true, but it's true enough to hurt. But no one assumed anything like that forty or fifty years ago. If you'd asked someone in 1955 if they could synthesize Vitamin B-12 if they just had enough postdocs and enough grant money, not many people would have had the nerve to say "yes." (And a fair number of the few who did would have been kidding themselves. . .) But that's the kind of problem Woodward lived for.
Many of the bizarre molecules made by the post-Woodward synthetic gods (Corey, Kishi, Nicolau, et al.) weren't even known in his day. Some of them would surely have given him pause if you'd asked him to take them on with 1960s chemistry. But organic synthesis has improved faster than the complexity of its targets, and the gap isn't what it was. Until we make the leap into some new level of difficulty (speculations welcome), it won't be. And Woodwardosaurus rex will remain extinct.
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