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April 17, 2006
Reading Our Own Press Releases
So, what's the problem if some of the yields in total synthesis papers are a bit. . .enhanced? If the reactions worked, why get worked up about it?
Well, aside from nagging thoughts of intellectual honesty, there's a practical implication. Even if no one ever tries most of these reactions again - and believe me, no one will - the problem with advertising our mighty chemical powers is that people who don't know any better will believe us.
You can start with other chemists. We've all heard stories about people who've tried to repeat reactions from the Famous Labs of one or another Famous Professors and been unable to get them to work. It's to the point that synthetic chemists with some experience automatically discount the yields that they see from some groups, because they know that they can't reproduce them. (See the comments to yesterday's post if you want some concrete examples). The ones who haven't heard, though, will continue to discover the nasty reality on their own, often wasting their time and effort in doing so.
But I think the serious trouble starts when we get outside of the field. I've worried for some time that synthetic organic chemistry has been in danger of making itself seem more powerful and efficient than it really is. This can be a noticeable problem in industry, where you deal with molecular biologists, toxicologists, and other people who have to take our word for things. And if what they hear about are mighty synthetic chemists banging out mighty molecules in mighty impressive yields, what kind of reception do we mortals get when we tell them that we're having trouble making their lead compounds in enough quantity?
We really don't want to make people think that we can make everything, you know, because we can't. Not in any real-world sense, we can't. Experienced synthetic chemists all know this, because we've all been humbled by comparatively simple molecules and supposedly easy reactions. These things are smarter and trickier than we are, and they'll remain so for a long time to come. It would go easier on us if people outside the field knew that we can't just magically deliver on whatever they'd like us to make. And who knows, perhaps if word got out that organic chemistry isn't a tapped-out all-tied-up field, we'd get some more good people to come help with it.
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