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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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August 2, 2005

Never Came In Handy. Not Once.

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Posted by Derek

I was trying to think back to the least useful chemistry I ever learned in undergraduate and graduate school, and let me tell you, it's a tough league to play in.

I know, I know, many of you are thinking "Yeah, I hated quantum mechanics, too", but that's not what I'm talking about. Quantum stuff is actually interesting to me, although I am glad to not be obligated to finish any paragraph that begins with "Consider the Hamiltonian. . ." No, I'm thinking of things that were presented as techniques that I'd be using and had better understand and commit to memory.

How about. . .electron spin resonance? ESR was sold to us as a parallel world to NMR, full of its own utility, well worth getting to know. Sheep dip. ESR is interesting and useful to that subset of people who deal with reasonably stable free radicals, but to very few others indeed. I take that point that it's a fine technique for those people, but I'd like to point out that my chances of becoming one of them were never very high. The time and effort I put into learning it could have been spent much more profitably.

"But hold it," says my memory. "You didn't spend any time getting to learn ESR spectroscopy. You read the newspaper during the lectures. You didn't buy the textbook. You only exerted yourself during the hours leading up to the exams, and sometimes not even then. It's no wonder you don't know squat about it."

Er, well, I suppose there's something to that. I recall that the class was divided up into groups of three or four, and assigned regular problem sets to work out and hand in. My group of three became increasingly demotivated as things went on, and by the time of the last problem set, we spent our time complaining about how much we couldn't stand the stuff any more and never got around to solving any of the problems.

Come that Monday morning, I realized that I hadn't put anything together for us to hand in. So I just dug around and found a sheet or two where we'd taken a listless stab at working a problem. That seemed a bit lacking in heft, so I bulked it out with a random handful of paper from a disused notebook, put our names on it, stapled the pile up, and turned it in. There were blank sheets of paper in there; there was a paper towel. The sheets with writing on them often weren't even from the course in question, and many of them were upside down, anyway. What the hey.

Looking back, it's hard to believe I actually did that. My problem set partners found it a bit difficult, too, even at the time: "You did what?" I awaited our grade with interest. A few days later, the professor stopped me on my way out of the class and asked "Do I have your group's problem set?" "Sort of," I responded. "Oh, yes!" came his answer, "that was a messy one, wasn't it?"

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


1. Paul Echeverri on August 2, 2005 8:27 PM writes...

I can't believe you aren't telling us what grade you got! It's like a joke with no punchline.

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2. Derek Lowe on August 2, 2005 9:12 PM writes...

Oh, out of ten points on that problem set, we got, I think, 1 and a half. That was upside down on one of the sheets, where we'd tried to work one of the damn things. I can't believe that the professor actually leafed through the pile and found the thing - me, I'd have given us all about a minus five.

As for the course, I think I pulled one of my less-deserved B+ grades.

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3. Greg Hlatky on August 2, 2005 10:32 PM writes...

Consider the phrase "the least useful chemistry I ever learned in undergraduate and graduate school."

Two words: statistical thermodynamics.

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4. daen on August 3, 2005 6:42 AM writes...

the least useful chemistry I ever learned in undergraduate and graduate school.

I think you should modify that to "the least useful chemistry with immediate practical application". Let's be honest, both statistical thermodynamics and quantum mechanics fundamentally revolutionized the theory of chemistry. Come one, you have to be impressed with the simplicity of Bohr's quantum model, which together with Pauli's exclusion principle lets you build the entire periodic table with just four quantum numbers and a simple algorithm! Isn't it amazing that the universe behaves like that?

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5. Derek Lowe on August 3, 2005 9:29 AM writes...

Oh, I like quantum, as I mentioned, which is why I didn't single it out any further. And, pace Greg Hlatky, I actually don't mind statistical thermodynamics, either, although I've never had a rigorous course in it. That might tend to undermine what affection I have, admittedly.

You're right that both of those underpin things that chemists do every day, and thus can't be called truly useless. Now, electron spin resonance, well. . .

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6. tim mayer on August 3, 2005 10:12 AM writes...

I don't know where to begin. How about the pointless courses I was forced to take the year I spent in pharmacy school? "Guess what, kids, we're going to teach you for an entire semester how to make medications the way no one does anymore! Aren't you excited!"

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7. Cryptic Ned on August 3, 2005 10:15 AM writes...

From the biology world, I don't think anything could top having to memorize the entire Calvin Cycle. That pretty much has the highest imaginable T:E ratio, where T=time and effort taken to memorize the thing, and E=ease of looking it up in the real world. Plus, nobody at the University of Pittsburgh is going to be a botanist anyway.

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8. beloml on August 3, 2005 2:17 PM writes...

As a fellow Hendrix grad from your era (although an English major), I'm dying to know who the prof was!

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9. Derek Lowe on August 3, 2005 2:53 PM writes...

Grad school, unfortunately, and the professor has since retired. . .ESR isn't touched on too much at the undergraduate level, 'cause there are just too many other more important topics to cover.

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10. SP on August 3, 2005 4:34 PM writes...

I covered ESR in an undergrad course, briefly- we didn't actually run the machine, but were given a spectrum and told to interpret it. But- even more useless was a prof who made us memorize how to calculate peak absorbance wavelengths for various conjugated systems. A benzene ring has this base number, then an exocyclic trans olefin changed the number by this much, and a cis olefin by this much, and so on. The exam actually had a structure asking what the lambda_max should be. I should have answered that you find out by putting the damn thing in a cuvette.

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11. SP on August 3, 2005 4:35 PM writes...

Ah, here you go- we basically had to memorize this page

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12. Daniel Newby on August 3, 2005 6:36 PM writes...

"ESR is interesting and useful to that subset of people who deal with reasonably stable free radicals, [snip]"

With rather high purity and uniform state, as the chemical shifts are ... vigorous. That was the deal breaker for me when I went looking for a convenient way to do chemical detection on messy real-world samples.

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13. SRC on August 3, 2005 7:19 PM writes...


You're implicitly thinking of EPR for use in structure determination, for which it is nigh unto useless. That anyone would teach it from that perspective bespeaks someone who doesn't really understand it very well.

EPR comes into its own in investigation of electronic, not molecular, structure. Examples include spin densities in pi electron radicals (as a check on MO calculations) and especially transition metal ions, where it is an invaluable adjunct to optical spectroscopy and magnetic studies in determination of electronic structure.

Trying to use EPR to identify a compound is about as sensible as trying to use HPLC to separate the components of an alloy.

To put it another way, what information does NMR provide about electronic structure (apart from aromaticity)? EPR and NMR are each useful in their own domain, namely electronic and molecular structure, respectively.

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