Physics prof Chad Orzel published a guide last week to surviving organic chemistry seminars. (I can understand that that's a particularly high priority for people who don't know any organic chemistry and have to sit through these things, actually.) He provides what is, for an organic chemist like me, an interesting man-from-Mars viewpoint:
"Stage Two: "Here's the stuff we start with." This will include a couple of diagrams showing different arrangements of hexagons. The jargon will get pretty thick, here, but almost all the strange words will be names of different parts and sub-parts of molecules. . .
Stage Three: "Here are the steps in the process." This will include at least one slide showing multiple diagrams of hexagons, with arrows between them. The jargon will again be pretty thick, but here, all the strange words will refer to methods of sticking pieces of molecules together. . ."
Ah, but are these the hexagons with little circles in the middle of them, or the plain ones? Very different, those guys are. Since he didn't mention dashed and wedged bonds, I'll assume it's the former. Rarely will those arrows point from one kind to the other, by the way. You can turn the circle-inside guys to the uncircled kind and vice versa, but it takes some real hammer-and-tongs reactions to do it. I haven't run one of those for over twenty years now, to give you the idea.
Keep in mind that we use pentagons and heptagons, too, but you won't see many circles inside them (although it's possible, especially if you're sitting through an organometallic chemistry talk.) Squares are rare, but triangles can represent a group that I've always liked, and that I have a reputation for introducing into my lab's molecules.
Once you've staggered through the talk, there's the problem of questions at the end, naturally. Orzel's advice:
"If you absolutely need to ask a question, remember that the crucial figure of merit for these talks is the "yield," which basically means "How much product do you get for a given volume of reactant?" If the speaker hasn't mentioned the yield specifically, you can't go wrong asking "What's the yield like?"
If they have stated the yield, ask "How does the yield stack up against other methods of producing this stuff?"
If they have stated the yield, and compared it to existing methods, and you still feel a need to ask a question, ask about the solvent peaks/ blobs/ pencil marks.
Questions of the form "Why are you trying to make this stuff in the first place?" are usually considered unsporting. . ."
Ay, that's for sure. I'm glad no one asked me that last one during my PhD defense, because by that time I'd begun to realize that most of my possible answers were pretty weak. I sure don't think I'd have been able to get them out with the tone of conviction I'd have had three years before. As I told people near the end - no, not my examining committee, what do you take me for - "The world doesn't need another synthesis of this molecule. But I do."
But I'd ask Chad to take heart - I don't hear many physics presentations, but I do have to sit through some pretty gritty molecular biology talks from time to time. I can deal with those, for the most part, except (as I've mentioned) for the sneaking suspicion that I've been seeing the same electrophoresis gel since 1987.
And, frankly, I'm not all that good at sitting through talks in my own field. My tolerance of uninteresting work has not improved over the years, and my definition of "uninteresting work" is gradually becoming more inclusive. It's to the point that some of my colleagues give me the raised eyebrow when I actually show up at a seminar. I feel, in other words, Chad's pain.