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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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May 21, 2006

Chem-Geek Alternate History

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Posted by Derek

During long meetings, my thoughts turn to all sorts of useful topics - pressing things like, "If we ever meet intelligent aliens, what will they know about chemistry compared to us?" (I'm having to make some assumptions with that thought, of course, because any aliens that can send us so much as a ham sandwich from another star system already have us totally outclassed). But the question doesn't have to involve any space travel; you could just as easily ask what we'd be doing now if the history of the science had gone differently. Did it have to evolve the way it did?

For example, there are an awful lot of old carbonyl-condensation reactions - aldol, Claisen, Dieckmann, etc. Are these inevitable early discoveries? You could make a case for "yes", because the starting materials are often such basic organic chemicals (aldehydes, esters), and their reactions would probably be among the first things explored. Besides, the reactions of stabilized carbanions are a cornerstone of organic chemistry, and even if things got a bit out of order you'd think that this would have to still be the case, The same goes, and more so, for nucleophilic substitution. I don't see any sort of organic chemistry getting very far without the discovery of things like the Williamson ether synthesis and the Finkelstein reaction, and the principles behind them.

The wild cards would probably be organometallic reactions. Grignard reagents might be an example of things were discovered earlier than they should have been. We still don't know all the details of their formation and reactivity, a hundred years on. And on the other side, did it have to take so long for the palladium couplings we all use to be discovered? After all, palladium was already known to do a lot of interesting organic chemistry, even fifty years ago. But as late as the 1980s, palladium-catalyzed carbon-carbon couplings were a bit exotic. Think, though, of what the field would look like if someone had stumbled over the Suzuki coupling in, say, 1949. . .

The history of oxidation and reduction, though, could easily be moved around, since there are so many means to accomplish similar ends. It's possible to imagine a world where the early organic synthesis papers aren't so full of Jones reagent and the other chromiums, but where some sort of permanganate or ruthenium reagent was the favorite. As for reduction, like him or hate him, where would boron reagents have been without H. C. Brown? ("Probably more widely used", I can hear some people muttering. . .)

That brings up the whole topic of personality. Historians frown on the "great man" viewpoint, but inside one scientific discipline it's hard to ignore it. Organic synthesis would certainly exist if R. B. Woodward had never been born, but it's for certain that it wouldn't look the way it does now. . .

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News | Drug Industry History


1. Paul on May 21, 2006 9:33 PM writes...

Another area for speculation is allotropic carbon - particularly buckminsterfullerenes. Considering that they're a natural component of common soot, it's remarkable in some ways that it took us so long to find them. I could see another culture being far more advanced in the chemistry of buckyballs than we are, just because this allotrope of carbon was discovered by their equivalent of medieval alchemy.

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2. Paul on May 21, 2006 9:41 PM writes...

I should have thought of this in my first comment: Consider how the limitations of different senses might affect the evolution of chemistry.

For example, a species that had limited color vision in what we think of as the "visible spectrum," but that had strong powers if discrimination in the infrared, might have taken very different directions in chemistry.

Just to take one example, benzene might be visibly distinct from toluene or gasoline for such a species. Reactions that can't be detected visually by humans might be colorimetric reactions for such a species, and might have been discovered in the earliest days of their chemistry simply because they could be detected visually.

The same is true for a species that had a bloodhound's sense of smell. This is such a large area that I'm only thinking in general outlines right now, but it's interesting to consider how a species senses might influence the development of any science.

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3. eugene on May 21, 2006 11:39 PM writes...

Alternatively, what if there was no World War I, or World War II? How far back in the development of chemistry would we be then? Maybe in the 70s I'm guessing.

Now that's a great thought... One that Ernst Juenger would be very interested in if he were still alive.

Of course on the flip side, more of my extended family may have been alive today.

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4. Jeff Bonwick on May 22, 2006 4:07 AM writes...

What if Earth's geology were significantly different? Most minerals are conveniently concentrated, stratified and just sitting there waiting to be mined. If the whole planet were of uniform composition, how much of basic synthetic chemistry would be economically infeasible?

Alternatively, suppose all the heavy metals had sunk to the core. Lead may be toxic, but it's incredibly easy to work. It's hard to imagine a society making the transition to an industrial economy without such an agreeable metal to pave the way.

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5. Tom Womack on May 22, 2006 4:53 AM writes...

I could understand permanganate substituting for dichromate, but I'd have thought that, even were the initial research done with ruthenium, there would so immediately have been so strong an incentive to find something else that would work whilst costing less than gold that the first-row transition metal oxidising agents would have been quickly discovered.

On the other hand, I get the impression nothing works similarly to, let alone as well as, palladium.

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6. MIlo on May 22, 2006 12:02 PM writes...

It is humbling to read about all the amazing work that was done before such toys as NMR.

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7. Sigivald on May 22, 2006 1:18 PM writes...

Mmmm, space ham.

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8. MolecularGeek on May 22, 2006 5:02 PM writes...

Well, if they were from a terrestrial moon of a gaseous planet orbiting relatively further out from the primary star than earth is from sol, I bet they would have invented the Birch reduction a lot sooner. 8-)


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9. Jordan on May 23, 2006 3:48 PM writes...

Metal-catalysed couplings are also a favourite of mine. I often wonder why something as "seemingly simple" as the Heck reaction, for example, wasn't "discovered" earlier. Or what course organic chemistry would have taken if carbon-carbon bond forming reactions catalysed by Pd, Ru, etc. had been available in Woodward's time.

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