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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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« Another Chemistry Prize for Biology | Main | The Inscrutable French »

October 4, 2006

Cheer Up, You Chemists

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Posted by Derek

The Kornberg Nobel seems to have set off some "whither chemistry" noises over here (see the comments to this post). I wanted to highlight an especially provocative one:

Derek, I hope I don't offend my chemist colleagues (I'm myself a former chemist), but as a chemist you have to realize that Chemistry is a science of a lesser public impact. Done at the edges of important matters, it's physics, done at the edges of interesting issues, it becomes biology. You ask for the final explanation of matter and energy and you are a physicist, you are interested in the beauty and complexity of life, you are a biologist. Sorry, chemistry is a practical science, but today its mostly a set of tools.

Hey, I did say it was provocative. As you'd guess, I don't agree, but that doesn't mean that I don't understand this point of view. There seem to be a fair number of chemists with similar sinking feelings, to judge from the letters that show up from time to time in Chemical and Engineering News. The problem is, the same argument by exclusion slice-and-dice can be applied to any other scientific discipline, so long as you define its edges by labeling the things around it as "important" and "interesting".

I could turn things the other way by wondering if, then, some of the important parts of physics are the parts that overlap with chemistry, and some of the most interesting parts of biology are the ones that do likewise. But I don't want to get into a shouting contest about whose work is most useful or exciting, because I don't think it gets us anywhere to talk in those terms.

For me, chemistry is the science that deals with behavior of systems on a molecular level. As you go down to the atomic level, you get into physics (and by the time you're in the subatomic range, you're in physics up to your eyebrows). As you go up from single molecules to larger and larger molecular systems, you start to shade into biology, because the largest and most complicated of those we know about are living organisms.

So rather than bemoan these other disciplines poaching on chemistry's territory, or decide that all the good stuff belongs to them and that chemistry is left with nothing, I'd prefer to think that the field is in an excellent position. We're just at where both those other fields start to get really tough. Look at physics - you can do quantum mechanics on single isolated particles, but once you start bringing in more of them, things get very sticky very quickly. That's why there are all those molecular modeling programs, each full of its own assumptions and approximations, because that's the only way you can approach the calculations at all. Moving up from single particles to atoms and on to molecules is a huge leap in complexity.

And as for biology, the complexity has become more apparent by movement in the other direction. If you thought classical zoology or botany were pretty tangled up, take a look at them on the molecular level! Biology has made tremendous advances through the treatment of its smallest mechanical parts as real molecules behaving chemically. Look at the med-chem concept of a receptor - it was a revelation when people finally realized that this wasn't just a convenient bit of mental shorthand, but a concept that reflected an actual physical entity. And of course, the question of when a collection of molecular machines can be considered a living organism has set off arguments for decades.

No, being in the middle of the range has its advantages. These folks are in our territory because there's so much here to attract them. As chemists, we have to realize this and make the most of it, not sit around moaning about how other people are hogging the spotlight.

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. Squin on October 4, 2006 10:42 PM writes...

"I'd prefer to think that the field is in an excellent position. We're just at where both those other fields start to get really tough."

Nicely Done

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2. ZAL on October 5, 2006 2:40 AM writes...

In other words, if you want to make cutting-edge research in biology, today you have to know much more chemistry than before! I agree with the guy that yesterday wrote somewhere: "It`s not chemistry that is becoming more biological, it is rather biology that is becoming more chemical".
As a synthetic organic chemist, though, this is a good occasion to improve my knowledge of molecular biology...

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3. daen on October 5, 2006 5:54 AM writes...

In our company we have roughly a 50:50 mix of synthetic organic chemists and molecular biologists. When I joined the company from a finance and software development background, I was given an overview of how our hit generation technology works (ligands are combinatorially generated from 3 or 4 pools each of 100-200 small building blocks, each of which building block is tagged with a unique oligonucleotide, which are ligated during the library generation process to produce a unique "barcode" for each ligand. The library is then selected against a target, the highest affinity binders' DNA tag is sequenced and the structure recovered). When I mentioned to a chemist and a biologist how much easier it must have been for them to get up to speed, they just looked at me, looked at each other and laughed. One of them said that basically, they felt they might have had maybe a 50% head start over me, which made me feel a bit better.

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4. Ashutosh on October 5, 2006 10:52 AM writes...

Well, I do think the nature of chemistry is different as far as 'big' problems are concerned. I do believe it is going to be more and more difficult to find fundamental new principles that govern the fate of chemical reactions or organic transformations. Like I mentioned in my post, chemistry is inherently something that is connected to real life in a very real way. Physics is too, but through forces which after all you cannot touch or taste directly. So whenever you approach a chemical problem, it almost always ramifications with physics, biology, or medicine.

The really fundamental work in chemistry in my opinion was to figure out how the chemical bond is formed. Although that worked heavily borrowed from quantum mechanics, only someone like Pauling who combined mathematical prowess with empirical understanding of chemistry could have done it, and it was very much a chemical problem. As far as the chemical bond is concerned, I would like to think that there's not much left to discover about it in from a very basic standpoint. But then I also think about the hydrogen bond, and I marvel at how much remains to be known about it. The hydrogen bond challenges chemists' imagination like few other things, and a wealth of ideas about it still need to be explored- such as concepts of 'weak' and 'strong' hydrogen bonding, concepts that challenge our definition of bonding in a new way. For example, when does a 'weak' hydrogen bond cease to be a hydrogen bond and become simply a vdW contact? As far as honing our knowledge of chemistry is concerned, the hydrogen bond even after so much work on it still remains a singular landscape for discovery, and a quintessentially chemical one at that. I am not taking sides, but I also think that other scientists may find it hard to understand this subtle mix of mathematical analysis and emprical rationalization that is the domain of chemistry. Nobel laureate William Lipscomb once said that in his experience, it has been difficult to explain the nature of chemistry to physicists, who seem to think that chemistry is 'physics without rigor'. Chemistry does remain a unique science; I don't think there is any debate about that aspect at least.

As far as the Nobel prize is concerned, it is as much about public perception as about anything else. In that aspect, I would like to think that the public has actually overestimated the importance of chemistry because of its ubiquitous role in daily life. It's just that they don't tend to think of it as basic cutting edge research that fundamentally advances the frontiers of knowledge, but more as being synonymous with industry. Even in the pharmaceutical industry, as you pointed out once, most people think it is doctors who discover new drugs. Somehow, in the public's mind, the practical usefulness of chemistry has dulled the austere nature of discovery. The media could do something to remedy this.

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5. Palo on October 5, 2006 12:26 PM writes...

Yeah, Biology needs more Chemistry than before. Still, Biology reaches for Chemistry only when it needs it to answer a fundamental biological question. Chemistry is the means to a Biology end. Again, tell me the last Grand Chemistry Theory and we'll sit together to discuss just how boring it is. Can you sit in the coffee shop and interest anyone with any Chemistry theory? Doubt it.
You can work all your life in a chemistry lab to get a particular compund. Nature had millions of years to try millions of different forms to do it, efficiently and elegantly. That's called Evolution. The kinetics of kinases and phosphases is interesting, but a million times more interesting is how Nature developed a molecule that can act as both.

I'd rather read Darwin than Kholtoff.

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6. Pankaj on October 5, 2006 12:47 PM writes...

I have a cartoon posted near my desk (I think it is from ACS) which goes something like this:

A person solving a crossword in a newspaper asks his wife: " What's a nine letter word for biotechnology?"

The wife answers: "C H E M I S T R Y"

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7. Peter on October 5, 2006 2:46 PM writes...

Let the physicists debate about how theirs is the most fundamental science and let the biologists discuss the grand complexity of Nature. Chemists get to make things with their own hands that have never been made before. Get in the lab and invent! That's what's great about chemistry, why should we apologize for it?

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8. GA on October 5, 2006 4:00 PM writes...

Peter on October 5, 2006 02:46 PM writes...

Let the physicists debate about how theirs is the most fundamental science and let the biologists discuss the grand complexity of Nature. Chemists get to make things with their own hands that have never been made before. Get in the lab and invent! That's what's great about chemistry, why should we apologize for it?


Not to get into a pissing match, especially as a former chemist who still loves chemistry, but...what about site-directed mutagenesis, making stable cell-lines, and generating knockout mice? Isn't that making something that has never been made before?

If maths represents the letters, physics the words, chemistry the sentences, and biology the language, who is to say that one is more important than the other?

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9. RKN on October 5, 2006 5:42 PM writes...

Can you sit in the coffee shop and interest anyone with any Chemistry theory? Doubt it.

Personally, no. Though it's worth pointing out that there are a few people who thoroughly understand their field and can arouse interest in others by explaining complicated phenomena relevant to that field. Consider what Feynman did for physics. In fact I tend to agree with the adage that you don't really understand something unless you can teach it.

There's nothing intrinsically uninteresting about chemistry; as with anything complicated phenomenon the rate limiting step to interest is the storyteller.

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10. Jim Hu on October 5, 2006 8:31 PM writes...

Palo's argument that Chemistry needs a Grand Theory and Ashutosh's that the really fundamental work being about bond formation remind me of Gunther Stent saying that molecular biology was over in 1968...everything else was filling in the details.

The devil is in the details. I think it was Sidney Brenner who pointed out that while we may have worked out how to make a genetic switch, and making a mouse involves lots of such switches, this is not the same as knowing how to make a mouse.

IMHO, biochemistry is a hot part of chemistry not only because of the human health interest, but also, more fundamentally, because it's the source of well-defined, really big molecules, with complex structures and dynamics. Folding and catalysis are well within my definition of "real" chemistry (disclaimer - I don't have a chemistry degree of any kind).

There's plenty of big and interesting non-biological chemistry problems out there too, it seems to me. Aren't there still big unanswered questions about the chemistry of water, fer instance?

Anyone else think there will be a Chemistry Nobel in the near future for single molecule work? If so, who would you put on your short list?

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11. EV on October 6, 2006 6:30 AM writes...

"It`s not chemistry that is becoming more biological, it is rather biology that is becoming more chemical...".
I second this from the bottom of my heart. In my opinion it is a misconception that chemistry would be nothing more than a handy toolbox for biology. In fact it is exactly the opposite way: biology is (a special branch of) chemical science. No one can deny that biological processes ("life") come down to interactions at the molecular level, which is exactly the domain of the chemical science.

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12. EliaDiodati on October 6, 2006 1:59 PM writes...

"Look at physics - you can do quantum mechanics on single isolated particles, but once you start bringing in more of them, things get very sticky very quickly."

I agree in principle, but only to the extent that quantum chemistry is far from being a "black box" tool that can give reasonable results without knowing how things work. If one takes the time to understand the limitations of the various methods used, accurate results can definitely be attained. It's just like any other tool, really. (Consider for example trying to do an NMR without understanding the theory or the machine's operating instructions.)

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13. weirdo on October 8, 2006 11:01 PM writes...

Frankly, I think a lot of this "all the chemistry discoveries have already been made" BS is sour grapes. I'll content myself with the fact that, as a medicinal chemist, I have far better job prospects and will make a lot more money than any molecular biologist.

And I still think what I do is way, way more interesting and challenging.

Best of both worlds.

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14. MTK on October 9, 2006 2:45 PM writes...

It's always dangerous to declare that there is nothing big to discover anymore. Beyond some of the examples of Twainian exaggerations of a science's death that have been mentioned, I'm sure that many physicists in the mid-1800's figured Newton was the be all and end all. I'm even willing to guess that in pre-Copernican times many thought the universe had been figured out also.

In response to those that think chemistry is "low impact", you obviously have not heard about a little thing called global warming. The causes, and possible solutions (fuel cells, biofuels, etc), to this decidedly not "low impact" issue are all about chemistry. I suspect that someday soon an atmospheric or enviromental chemist may win the Nobel, especially as Sweden continues to warm and shrink in size.

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15. cowb on October 9, 2006 7:44 PM writes...

How about the dig in this week's Economist:

"The chemistry prize is for a piece of X-ray crystallography, a favourite subject of the academy's prize committees over the decades, and a way of awarding an extra physiology prize (since X-ray crystallography is used mainly to examine large biological molecules) without confessing that much of the intellectual oomph has gone out of chemistry in the century since Alfred Nobel, himself a chemist, drew up his will."


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16. Eric Johnson on October 9, 2006 8:08 PM writes...

I'm sure that many physicists in the mid-1800's figured Newton was the be all and end all.

FWIW, my textbook in an undergrad Western Civ course mentioned (without a reference) that that was essentially the feeling.

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