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February 17, 2005
Law and Disorder
I don't just spend all day in my office unraveling patents (or knitting my own); I do go out into the lab to make the wonder drugs from time to time. Today I spent the afternoon trying to separate two very closely related compounds - and not too darn successfully, either, as I found out just before I left work.
And once I get them apart, I'm still faced with trying to figure out which one is which. There are spectroscopic methods we can use, but it'll take a day or two. (Before I start complaining about that kind of thing, I should recall that I live in the days of powerful NMR machines with all kinds of tricky pulse sequence experiments. Forty years ago, figuring out which of these compounds was which might have taken a couple of months.)
But that said, these delays are something that a research chemist has to get used to. That's one of the things that I didn't realize as an undergraduate chem major: that professional organic chemists spend so much of their time purifying the things that they make just to get them to the point where they can start figuring out what they are. Understandably, these are just the steps that any dramatic treatment of the science has to leave out.
I can just see the detectives in a crime show asking the forensic chemist for the ID of the strange substance found in the murder victim's blood. "Hard to say," says the lab-coated one. "Our HPLC was acting up - we needed a new guard column 'cause Sam over there keeps plugging them up. Then we messed around for two days trying to get the peak cleaned up, and now the stuff doesn't ionize worth a hoot on the LC/MS, so I've asked the NMR guys if they can. . ." Holding their ears, the detectives walk away and a commercial for cat food comes on.
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