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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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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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« Worst Lecture of All, Or Greatest? | Main | This All Too Open Office »

January 23, 2012

Strangest Presentation You've Seen?

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Posted by Derek

Friday's mention of the Brindley lecture prompts me to throw this question out: what's the most weirdly memorable scientific presentation you've ever seen?

I'll put one out there that still sticks in my mind. Back in 1998, I was attending the Gordon Conference on Heterocycles. One of the speakers was a young faculty member from Montana, who was supposed to be speaking on metal-catalyzed reactions of indoles. Instead, he came in with a completely different slide deck on origins-of-life chemistry, which made it clear, rather quickly, that he not only did not buy into the "RNA world" hypothesis, but considered it (and much other origins-of-life work) to be the next thing to a conspiracy.

The audience took this in with some visible discomfort, as the talk itself became more passionate and agitated. The whole topic was something that clearly upset and offended the speaker, but I can't say that he made many converts. There were a couple of questions from the floor at the end, but I think that many people were just hoping to get this one over with and move on. The speaker himself moved on shortly to a small Adventist school, in a department that says that it hopes to provide a "scriptural perspective" on scientific issues, but he doesn't seem to be listed on the faculty there now, and I've been unable to trace him after that. . .

Comments (29) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. luysii on January 23, 2012 9:52 AM writes...

Not strange but certainly memorable: In 1960 watching Woodward draw the tetrapyrrole ring using both hands in his lecture on the total synthesis of chlorophyll -- and, of course, the synthesis itself

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2. monoceros4 on January 23, 2012 10:20 AM writes...

Man, I don't think I've ever been to one interesting lecture. I was once sitting in on a class of Nathan Lewis's at Caltech after some wags had rigged up the sliding panels of the chalkboard to be connected in some fashion, so that pulling down one panel would send another one back up, but that's hardly "memorable" in the sense under discussion.

I don't suppose pyromaniac high-school chemistry teacher presentations count? I now know for example that if you soak a circle of filter paper in a solution of white phosphorus in carbon disulfide, then lay the wet paper over the mouth of a very large graduated cylinder, the rush of air into the cylinder after the carbon disulfide evaporates and the phosphorus kindles sounds _exactly_ like a dog's bark.

I can't say that hypotheses of chemical abiogenesis make me "upset and offended", certainly not from a "scriptural perspective" whatever the heck that's supposed to be, but I do tend to roll my eyes at them. There have been so many, all of them equally unproven and unprovable: RNA worlds, sulfur worlds, clay worlds, countless worlds all somewhat plausible and all speculative.

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3. DannoH on January 23, 2012 10:36 AM writes...

#2 - The Barking Dog reminds me of the annual haloween chemistry show that Eberhard puts on at Northwestern University.

I have never seen so many undergrad assistants with missing eyebrows, stained hands, and this look of quiet terror in their eyes as I did at that presentation. It was "Chemist Gone Wild", complete with contact explosives drizzled on the floor to lift the foot of an unsuspecting passerby and witche's brews of stuff burning, smoking, screaming, exploding. It was quite the old school chemistry demonstration, and judging by the reaction of the younger people there, inspired many to a greater curiousity about the chemical sciences.

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4. Virgil on January 23, 2012 10:38 AM writes...

First year undergrad' safety course in the chemistry labs at UCL; a demonstration of why one should not daisy-chain power cords, intended to show that even a 30 amp fuse will flux quite a bit more. Let's just say 10 electric kettles all lined up on the bench, and you get the idea.

Cue the entire room going pitch black. Apparently the demonstration managed to knock out the main fuse to the whole building. Took about half an hour to get the lights back on. Point made very clearly!

My only other recollection of an "excellent" lecture, is from an EBEC (European Bioenergetics Conference) meeting in the late '90s. A certain un-named scientist, during their lecture, let out a clearly audible and very long fart, and just carried on talking as if nobody had heard. Needless to say I can't actually remember what the lecture was about, because everyone in the room including me was too busy trying not to laugh out loud.

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5. Anon on January 23, 2012 10:50 AM writes...

Barry Sharpless is the king of strange presentations.

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6. p on January 23, 2012 10:57 AM writes...

This is an excellent topic. As implied above, many public lectures are dry, boring affairs with someone pompously telling you what you've already read or making whiny excuses for why things didn't go better.

The best talk I ever attended was at a regional ACS meeting a few years ago. It was a retirement lecture given by Prof. DesMarteau of Clemson. Instead of regaling us with his many successes, all of which are published, he focused on three projects he had pursued, off and on, over his career, why he thought they were important, what his group had tried and what happened and where he thought they should go next.

It was a lively, entertaining talk that raised a number of interesting questions and, even though it wasn't the size or scope of audience you'd get at a bigger meeting, led to a really nice discussion afterwards.

I think every talk should be like this: ideas, results, failures, discussion, speculation. We can all read the literature, no need to read your papers to use a year after they're published. Also, in his humility and speculation, I was far more impressed with his work than I would have been with a recitation of successful projects.

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7. Another Kevin on January 23, 2012 11:02 AM writes...

Chicken chicken. Chicken chicken chicken.

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8. milkshaken on January 23, 2012 11:23 AM writes...

@ Sharpless: "Decoherence is manifest"

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9. Curious Wavefunction on January 23, 2012 11:39 AM writes...

@5, 8: I concur. Although the one I attended was awfully interesting, ranging from click chemistry to energy from manure to space shuttles.

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10. dzrlib on January 24, 2012 8:06 PM writes...

A joint seminar at Caltech in the early 1960s featuring H.C. Brown, Jack Roberts and Saul Winstein. Winstein unmercifully ridiculed Brown for not accepting the concept of a non-classical norbornyl cation ... but Brown, always a gentleman, stood his ground.

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11. fat old man on January 24, 2012 10:27 PM writes...


There was a story going around when I was in grad school, perhaps it was apocryphal, that at one of those Brown/Winstein meetings Brown pulled out a gun and said that was in case there were any questions. Maybe that story was made up by phys org profs at our school, who were decidedly pro-Winstein.

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12. The Heterocyclist on January 24, 2012 10:30 PM writes...

Derek, I remember that GRC lecture very well. It was downright bizarre watching someone's career implode right before my eyes. Otherwise, it was a terrific conference, chaired by Paul Ornstein as I recall.

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13. bcpmoon on January 25, 2012 6:33 AM writes...

Maybe not strange but memorable:
I attended a lecture held by Friedrich Hund in 1991, titled (approx.): "Things I did not discover", where he recalled avenues of enquiry he passed on but took others to Stockholm. It was a great talk, full of humor and wit. The lecture hall was completely packed and more.
Hund was 95 at that time (PhD with Max Born! 1922!).

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14. newnickname on January 25, 2012 8:47 AM writes...

@10 and 11: Winstein - Brown. Undergrad phys organic prof mentioned a (pre-laser pointer) symposium where there was no pointer stick so they were using a broom to point to the screen. I always assumed it was Winstein-Brown. The second speaker got up to present his view and said, 'After that, I think a shovel would be more appropriate.' (Would not have submitted except for the previous W-B mentions.)

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15. newnickname on January 25, 2012 9:04 AM writes...

Not strange, but MEMORABLE. At the 1978 Leermakers Symposium (Woodward), Jerry Berson mentioned the quinine synthesis. He praised the ring opening of the isoquinolinone to the cis-piperidine with nitrite noting that the oxime was stable enough not to equilibrate to the trans-piperidine and thus get converted to the cis pendant vinyl. He said, 'I always wondered whether or not that was a planned reaction.' At the end of the day, RBW addressed numerous topics raised during the day and specifically mentioned Berson's Q. 'Yes, Jerry, it was a planned reaction. Just like the 25 other reactions we had tried before it that failed.'

Anybody have a DVD or audio recording of that Symposium?

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16. Curious Wavefunction on January 25, 2012 9:54 AM writes...

-Brown, always a gentleman, stood his ground.

Maybe he was one in that particular instance, but there were at least a few instances where he was not quite gentlemanly and even disingenuous. For more details see Jack Roberts's memoirs. At one point Roberts was so infuriated by Brown's behavior that he compared him to someone who is deliberately trampling beautiful (chemical) flowers with his muddy boots.

Brown's relentless refusal to accept non-classical ions produced ingenious chemistry but was also deeply divisive, engendering bitterness between friends. No doubt that he was a great chemist though.

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17. Quintus on January 25, 2012 10:04 AM writes...

Two of the funniest things I heard, the persons shall remain nameless:
1 Introduction, to the organizers "you should be happy to have me here today".

2 After 25 years in this company the first thing I ever received from them is this white stick (a colleague being asked to give his first presentation after all these years).

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18. drug_hunter on January 25, 2012 10:39 AM writes...

I always love Barry Sharpless lectures!

But I remember when another Barry -- Trost -- once reamed out the projectionist who couldn't get the stuck slide out of the carousel (remember those?) fast enough. Trost kept saying "next slide...." in a louder and angrier tone while the poor flustered undergrad struggled to fix the problem, which lasted all of, maybe, 30 seconds.

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19. Chemist Turned Editor on January 25, 2012 11:12 AM writes...

Back in the 90s when I was a bench chemist at a budding biotech company in La Jolla, we had an interviewee who gave a talk that I (and probably most of the other chemists who saw it) still remember. The interviewee was working at Ole Miss and was part of a team researching THC. It turns out that it undergoes a decarboxylation reaction when heated up to a high enough temperature (say like when your burn the "herb") and the resulting product is more potent than THC in its natural form. The interviewee's take-home message at the end of his talk was that if you make brownies with said herb, be sure to cook them at a hot enough temperature to trigger the decarboxylation reaction. Yes, he got the job.

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20. drongo on January 25, 2012 11:25 AM writes...

I can one-up Virgil's story about a flatulent speaker. I recall a situation that started very similarly to that described by Virgil. We all sat there trying to ignore the noises and pay attention to the presenter -- who, as in Virgil's story, continued talking as though oblivious. But then over the loudspeakers came a loud WHOOOOSH -- the unmistakable sound of a toilet flushing. This completely silenced the presenter, who (along with the rest of us) was no doubt thinking WTF?!??!

All became clear a few seconds later when the presenter for the NEXT talk walked into the room. The presenters were using those clip-on wireless microphone systems -- and as each presenter went up to speak, the subsequent presenter was given the microphone from the previous presenter, so he/she would be ready to go.

Moral of the story: if you get butterflies in your stomach before a talk and need to go to the bathroom, turn off the microphone first!!

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21. drongo on January 25, 2012 11:47 AM writes...

I recall a case that wasn't a 'strangest presentation' but rather a 'strangest non-presentation'. I was at an ACS conference where the session chair called on a scheduled presenter to come forward. But the presenter refused to get up -- he merely shook his head. The session chair initially thought it was some kind of a joke -- but after a minute or two of trying to cajole the presenter to come forward, he gave up and called on the next presenter. I never did learn what the problem was. At the end of the session, the non-presenter got up and walked out -- so it wasn't a medical issue. Maybe he just got cold feet?

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22. pharmaboy on January 25, 2012 12:53 PM writes...

Kary Mullis, Harvard, 1994. Ostensibly invited to discuss PCR, for which he had just received the nobel prize, Mullis discussed everything BUT PCR. He started by describing PCR as "like my 17 year old daughter: I know she is mine but I have no idea what she is doing". He then went on to show fractals projected against the naked body of his girlfriend and then went into a long diatribe about the origins of HIV in San Francisco bath houses which he descibed as "a dangerous but fun place to be!" The whole time he was talking he was doing this wierd shaking thing with his left leg cocked behind his right knee. During the Q&A he was obnoxious and insulted everyone, the university, the faculty and especially anyone asking a question. One female challenged his AIDS theory and he said "you must be a dyke from Barnard". At the time it was very uncomfortable and somewhat entertaining. We all went back to the lab to our normal work routine but after about 45 mins, a colleague came in our bay with a bewildered look and stated the conclusion we had all just reached "you know, that was really weird"

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23. CR on January 25, 2012 1:14 PM writes...

Back in graduate school in the 90's we had Don Matteson (Washington State) in to give a talk on his boron chemistry. Not bad work and pretty interesting. Anyway, he was a strange presenter - throughout the seminar he would present a chemistry slide and then the next slide would be of some animal that he took a picture of outside his house or office. Nothing too strange, just giving us a flavor of the wildlife in Washington. But...when the picture would come up, he would talk in a strange voice and actually act like the animal was a puppet asking rhetorical questions about his own seminar. We thought the first time was funny (embarrassing), but this went on throughout the seminar and kept getting weirder as the questions from the animals (and voices) kept getting stranger. One talk where you were actually embarrassed for the guy.

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24. exGlaxoid on January 25, 2012 1:50 PM writes...

If you think Kary Mullis gives a weird talk, try his book, "Dancing Naked in the Mind Field", which is one of the weirdest books I have ever read. He talks about his research, his work with Max Gergel (a great bit), and then goes off into his interactions with aliens and other wild stories. Oddly enough, he mentions using LSD in between his Nobel prize research and his alien encounters...

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25. paperclip on January 25, 2012 2:46 PM writes...

A young female graduate student gave a talk at a conference. All the speakers were using a shared computer. She wanted to show everyone a video, and clicked on an icon -- the wrong icon. Up on the screen appeared a pair of breasts. It was a breast self-examination tutorial. There was a collective gasp from the audience. Although the speaker and the woman on the computer were not the same person, their body types were similar, so at the moment it was wondered if the audience was watching the speaker's own breast exam.

The speaker tried to close the video, but attempts were failing (of course). Finally, she managed to get rid of it. She then said she needed a moment to compose herself...and fainted.

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26. LiqC on January 25, 2012 6:23 PM writes...

I've got one from the an undergrad seminar seminar at my college. It was a quantum chemistry course, with the lecturer being the quintessential "crazy scientist" type, so indifferent about everything that he didn't give a damn about what was going on in the class. We drank beer during the final.

One day, a guy sleeping was sleeping in the front desk, wearing headphones, which are blasting something pretty loud. At some point, he wakes up, looks at the blackboard filled with strange symbols (which he actually understood), looks at his neighboor's notes, and, still in headphones, asks very loudly: "What the fuck are you writing?"

The lecturer steps back, looks at the blackboard, turns to the class, and says "well, I don't see any mistakes; moving on..." and continues like nothing happened.

Chemist Turned Editor (#19), where's a carboxyl group in the structure of THC?

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27. J. Peterson on January 25, 2012 9:00 PM writes...

My favorites were some of the lectures in the early '90s by astronomer (turned temporary computer security expert) Clifford Stoll. He's a absolutely hyper-kinetic (check out his TED lecture on YouTube).

In one "lecture", he starts off at a podium with an overhead projector (remember those?). As he gets excited he flings each slide off the projector. Soon the floor is littered with overhead slides. Keeping still in front of a lectern is just not his style, so quickly into the talk (and never interrupting his rapid-fire speech) he starts working the mic loose from the lectern.

But he still can't move around, because the microphone cord is taped to the floor. So (again, with no pause in speech) he starts ripping the tape off the floor to free the cord. Now at least he can move.

But, to his annoyance, one of his hands is still tied up holding the mic. So he picks up the tape he'd ripped off the floor, and begins wrapping it around his body, in an attempt to secure the microphone and the cord so he can have both hands free.

By the end of the lecture, overhead slides cover the floor, and he's got about 20' of duct tape wrapped around him.

Other lectures had similar antics. At a bookstore, the crowd was large enough that he couldn't see everybody. So he starts climbing up the bookshelves. Still can't see the whole crowd. So he begins precariously standing on the top shelf and starts knocking the ceiling tiles out of the way.

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28. basudin on January 26, 2012 4:10 AM writes...

#26: I'm guessing he's referring to decarboxylation of the various tetrahydrocannabinolic acids?

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29. Maccé on January 30, 2012 8:42 PM writes...

A cell biologist from Saint Petersburg was invited to talk at a postgrad symposium talking about the evolution of cancer. He spent the majority of his hour showing pictures of gold fish with massive chemically induced tumors on them and laughing at the poor things, which I found somewhat unnerving.

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