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March 30, 2005
(This is an update of a three-year-old posting - it seemed like a good time to bring it back.)
Since I was speaking about NMR, it's a good thing for chemists to remember that this tool wasn't always there for us. For those of you not in the field, I can say without exaggeration that we'd have to close up shop without it. It's so valuable that it's crowded out older, perfectly reasonable techniques like infrared spectroscopy.
Fellow chemists, raise your hands: Who's taken an IR spectrum in the last six months? OK, you folks who are characterizing compounds for your dissertations can put yours down. Anyone from Switzerland who's writing a paper for Helvetica Chimica Acta (where every new compound is characterized practically down to how it tastes) can put their hand down, too. Anyone left?
I didn't think so. It's a lost art. I haven't taken one since the late 1980s, myself. It's true that you can see all sorts of structural information in an IR, but why would you bother? NMR will tell you the same thing and plenty more at the same time, things you could stare an an infrared spectrum until your eyes cross and never be able to determine.
For an even more lost art, consider ultraviolet/visible spectroscopy. Go back to the 1940s and 50s and the journals are full of UV/Vis spectra, reproduced in all their near-featureless glory. I took a few of these as an undergraduate, and I don't recall ever doing any since. Inorganic chemists can be interested in these wavelengths, but darn few synthetic organic chemists are.
But don't get me wrong - I'm not asking to return to the days when those techniques meant something. Far from it. But every so often, when we're complaining that the NMR machine is taking an extra couple of minutes to automatically run our sample, it's worth taking a minute to think about the alternative.
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