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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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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November 21, 2013

The Chemistry Book

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Posted by Derek

I wanted to mention to readers here that I've agreed to write a book (for a general audience) on chemistry for Sterling Publishers (the publishing arm of Barnes and Noble). They've been putting out a series of books (Sterling Milestones) on various scientific topics, looking at 250 key concepts or historical events. There's a short essay on each of these, and an illustration on the facing page. Clifford Pickover did The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book for them, and recently they've published The Drug Book, The Space Book, and The Psychology Book as well. So I'm doing The Chemistry Book, which occupies me on my train rides home after work and after dinner - my wife and kids have been involuntarily roped in as the test audience for the entries.

The book itself won't be out for a while - I'm delivering the manuscript next spring, and there will surely be a lot of editorial work after that. I have over 200 of the short chapters outlined so far, but I'm leaving some room for more topics as they occur to me (and as the chapters I'm writing suggest - sometimes I find that I have to include another topic to make the one I'm working on make sense to the eventual readers).

I don't want to give away the complete list of chapters just yet, not least because it's still changing around, but I would like to solicit nominations for events and ideas that anyone thinks I should be sure to cover. The book spans the whole historical record, up to the present day, in all fields of chemistry, so in one sense the challenge is narrowing it down to just 250 short essays. The other challenge is actually writing 250 short essays, of course. I'm doing OK against my list so far, but there are some topics that are difficult to do justice to in 350 words, as will be easily appreciated by the chemists around here.

So if anyone has some topics, obvious or nonobvious, that they think a book like this should be sure to include, please mention them in the comments. I'm sure some of them will already be on the list, but since I have room to add more, I certainly don't want to miss too many good opportunities. Thanks very much!

And yes, the "Things I Won't Work With" manuscript is being worked on as well. "The Chemistry Book" is giving me some practice at integrating a longer manuscript, and I've been adding some new material along the way. The trickier part of that one has been getting rid of some repetition that you notice when the original blog posts are stacked up together. But it's definitely in the hopper.

Update: a lot of good ideas in the comments! Many of them were already on my list, but I've already seem some that I wouldn't have thought of, and some others that I really should have but overlooked. Much appreciated! Anyone who hasn't added something and still wants to, though, feel free - I'll be checking this post pretty frequently.

Comments (143) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Book Recommendations


1. NoDrugsNoJobs on November 21, 2013 9:31 AM writes...

Always the great Albert Hofmann Lysergic acid diethylamide story.

Theres the rapamycin discovered on Easter Island Soil story, kind of a cool introduction to natural product isolation.

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2. old man on November 21, 2013 9:35 AM writes...

Don't forget the other allotropes of Carbon, Buckyball, Carbon nanotubes, Graphene etc.

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3. MTK on November 21, 2013 9:41 AM writes...

Is the format chronological like Pickover's books?

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4. Derek Lowe on November 21, 2013 9:49 AM writes...

Yep, the format is exactly the same as the others in the series, from ancient history to modern day.

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5. Derek Lowe on November 21, 2013 9:52 AM writes...

Just wrote the buckyball entry the other night, actually, and the nanotube/graphene story would be a good one to add to the present-day end of the book. And I have Rapamycin on the list, for just the reasons mentioned, but looking over the chapter headings, I see that I'd forgotten Hoffman! Just the reason that I put this query up - thanks.

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6. X Chemist on November 21, 2013 10:05 AM writes...

-whoever it was who first showed the 'equivalence' of a chemical from non-natural and natural origins. the name and the experiment escapes me
-ytterby - the small swedish town which gave the world four elements
- thomas midgley - the dark side of chemistry! key role in the development of highly effective anti knocking agents and non-flammable refrigerants. Shame that they turned out to be highly toxic (tetraethyl lead) and environmentally destructive (CFCs)
- discovery of effective antivirals for HIV
- aspirin

you probably had all those anyway, but that's what sprung to mind for me. Should be some more physical, theoretical, inorganic examples I guess

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7. Fluorine on November 21, 2013 10:08 AM writes...

The discovery of PTFE and CFC filled refrigerators are interesting anecdotes from the best part of organic chemistry (fluorine chemistry...).

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8. JK on November 21, 2013 10:12 AM writes...

"whoever it was who first showed the 'equivalence' of a chemical from non-natural and natural origins. the name and the experiment escapes me"

That would be Friedrich Wöhler's synthesis of urea. Wikipedia claims it is "considered the starting point of modern organic chemistry" so I hope it's already on the list!

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9. ADC Chem on November 21, 2013 10:13 AM writes...

I really always amazed about how much Lavoisier got right in his table of elements in 1789!

A look at some of his early experiments like the ones were he had to dip his hands in mercury under a glass bulb to preserve an inert atmosphere for his caloric experiments would be really nice.

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10. MTK on November 21, 2013 10:14 AM writes...


I think you're referring to Wohler who was able to make urea from ammonium cyanate.

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11. Sam on November 21, 2013 10:15 AM writes...

The "polywater" story, where the samples were contaminated with human sweat

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12. LeedsChemist on November 21, 2013 10:22 AM writes...

I always think Clair Patterson is worth a mention. He was a "geochemist" rather than the standard organic/inorganic physical chemist so I don't know if he fits into your book, but his story is pretty amazing.

Nicolas LeBlanc and the first ever industrially synthesised chemical (sodium bicarbonate)? seems mundane now but at the time it was highly regarded. And help to kick start industrial chemistry which turned out to be quite important...for a while at least!

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13. dogbertd on November 21, 2013 10:30 AM writes...

If you're using a historical approach, are you going to include the Alchemists? Jim Al-Khalili's TV programmes on the history of chemistry made me realise that they weren't all bonkers but did in fact make new discoveries (albeit by accident).

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14. anomalous on November 21, 2013 10:30 AM writes...

1. van't Hoff's (& Le Bel's) proposal of tetrahedral arrangement, and the ridicule it was initially received with

2. Pasteur's chiral resolution of "racemic acid" into (+) tataric acid and the hitherto unknown (-) tartaric acid. Doing it again with Biot watching like a hawk to make sure there was no funny business. "My dear child, I have loved science so much all my life that this makes my heart throb!"

3. Russell Marker taking off into the jungles of Mexico, extracting diosgenin from cabaza de negro and coming back with a fortune in progesterone

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15. Chris Waldron on November 21, 2013 10:39 AM writes...

How about something on polyacetylene, the first(?) electrically conductive polymer? It was one of those nice serendipitous discoveries, like a lot of good things in science and resulted in the Nobel prize.

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16. Jim on November 21, 2013 10:39 AM writes...


If you are going to incorporate figures/images, you need to visit Fundamental Photos (

They have a nice image collection of chemical reactions.


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17. Hap on November 21, 2013 10:46 AM writes...

1) The invention of steam and catalytic cracking - it made much of the petroleum-based chemical industry and modern transit possible.

2) Either polywater, the Nozaki-Hiyama-Kishi coupling, Ledbeater's palladium-"free" couplings, or "arsenic-based" life might be good, to show how chemists have to be careful to know what's in what they are using, and that we're fallible.

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18. pchemist on November 21, 2013 10:49 AM writes...

Gibbs and Boltzmann

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19. MoMo on November 21, 2013 10:56 AM writes...

Wilhelm Norman and the discovery of hydrogenated fats like Crisco. Singlehandedly killed more people over the years that alll the tyrannical dictators combined.

Then there's the story of PFOAs, penquin fat and teflon and the fact they are organic persisters in the environment that keep circulating in the food chain.

But don't kill your book by putting in the balancing of equations or too abstract of topics-a sure audience killer.

Try to write to the general public and not the braniacs we are all surrounded with, we don't count. And then Oprah will read it and you stop the those long commutes to Boston.

Good luck!

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20. Poul-Henning Kamp on November 21, 2013 10:56 AM writes...

Random ideas:

One often overlooked aspect of the Manhattan Project was the groundbreaking research in complex-chemistry and the subsequent massive chemical operations for separating plutonium from the spent fuel from the Hanford reactors.

Most of the "legacy" from the cold-war nuclear hey-days is in the form of tanks and dumps of "assorted chemicals" laced with stuff from the troublesome end of the periodic table.

Another cold-war legacy is liquid hydrogen, although it can be argued that would be physics rather than chemistry.

Consider Niels Bohrs dissolved nobel medal, if you need a "hook" for why gold does not tarnish.

Maybe Acid rain ?

HFC's should be pretty obvious.

(I realize that those sound like "negative" chemistry stories, that was not by intention, it's just the ones where I remember thinking "chemistry is amazing...")

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21. Anonymous on November 21, 2013 11:13 AM writes...

Eluded to by others, but I always find stories of the practical applications during wartime very interesting.

Also, my personal favorite: R. B. Woodwards quinine synthesis

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22. Keith Robison on November 21, 2013 11:14 AM writes...

1) Obits on Fred Sanger reminded us that proteins were thought to be disordered messes & he couldn't initially get funding to pursue crazy idea of them having a defined sequence. Sanger & Edman could both be deserving for protein sequencing

2) Crystallography could get a few spots -- initial work by the Braggs, first protein structures, Rosalind Franklin, first virus structures

3) Linus Pauling working out alpha helix and beta sheet in his mind

5) First attempt to make a polymer as ivory substitute -- celluloid (failure for target use)

6) Aluminum going from uber-precious (capstone on Washington Monument) to uber-cheap due to the right chemistry

7) Invention of photography? Or instant photography -- very creative applications of chemistry

8) Clock reactions -- perhaps more for visuals in book than overall impact

7) pre-chemistry era -- invention of distillation (lots of great woodcuts out there

8) Discovery of technetium, a long-standing hole in the periodic table

9) Allison effect, N-rays -- important detours that showed how scientists can be fooled

10) Farber, Elion & the birth of rational drug design

11) Chemistry in space -- mass specs & other devices flown on planetary missions. Also, use of earth-bound spectrometers to determine chemistry of stars.

13) Miller-Urey (if you could work in a photo of Julia Child making primordial soup, that would be super!)

14) First liquification of air

15) Liquid helium & its strange properties

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23. dlib on November 21, 2013 11:18 AM writes...

I second #9 for Antoine Lavoisier.

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24. David Borhani on November 21, 2013 11:22 AM writes...

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

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25. morphine on November 21, 2013 11:31 AM writes...

Serturner and the isolation of morphine,

which was the isolation of the first alkaloid ever from a plant

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26. UndergradMinion on November 21, 2013 11:32 AM writes...

I love scientific history and I'm totally gonna love this book!

Some thoughts, in roughly chronological order:

-Johann Friedrich Böttger and his european porcelain. He was held a prisoner to discover a way to produce porcelain, which was very rare and expensive that time (and maybe a way to transmute lead into gold, too).

-Already mentioned, Antoine Lavoisier is a must, I suppose. Not only his work, which was an impressive example of the scientific method. Also how the french revolution (and his involvement on both sides) cost him his head and humanity many potential discoveries.

-One of the most ambigous persons in chemical history was maybe Fritz Haber. His ammonia synthesis is, without question, among the most important developements of his century, and his attempts to extract gold from sea water were, at least, ambitious. Yet his intense involvement in warfare makes him questionable, but on the other hand he did what his country needed him to do, didn't he? It's this kind of moral grey that oftenly thrills me about historical persons.

-Alfred Nobel. Poor guy. Do I need to say more?

-At last there is a story about Diels and Alder, told by Peter Plichta in one of his books. I don't know how accurate it is, this guy is pretty nuts himself. But he stated that Diels was incredibly jealous of Alder's fast successes and eventually even tried to lock him out of his lab. Therefore Alder started to actually live in his lab, never leaving it, bribing undergrads to bring him pizza and drinking vast amounts of lab ethanol. In the end the two split the nobel prize strictly in half and never exchanged a word again. As I said, you might want to find more info about this, I can just forward what Plichta wrote...

In the end, I think to myself that those human fates and failures are the really interesting part. One can only fully appreciate inventions and discoveries if one knows how hard-earned they are and if one is aware of the social and cultural background of the researcher. It is easy to say "well, now where is the great deed in discovering xyz" whithout knowing that said xyz was believed to be beyond impossible or even ridicolous. The strength required to push through that boundaries, thinking out of the box and defending your ideas against all odds is what brought humaity most of our greatest achievements.

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27. Klimt Limped on November 21, 2013 11:32 AM writes...

The Meselson-Stahl experiment. Although it's been termed "the most beautiful experiment in biology", it's actually the clearest example of how control of chemical composition (N14 vs N15 in DNA) can be used to elucidate the most fundamental aspects of biological processes at the molecular level (the semi-conservative process for replicating double-stranded DNA).

The story of Fritz Haber. How his discovery for synthesizing ammonia enabled food production for billions, and how his subsequent contributions to chemical warfare agents produced some of the most obscene episodes of human cruelty in history.

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28. schinderhannes on November 21, 2013 11:35 AM writes...

Whatevr you do, dont forget the doebereiner feuerzeug in your section on catalysis!

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29. nekekami on November 21, 2013 11:37 AM writes...

May I suggest a look at various glues/bonding materials through the ages? Or the chemistry of various inks/colours? The chemistry of concrete?

So many things in modern society that wouldn't function without those...

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30. Project osprey on November 21, 2013 11:38 AM writes...

The development of enantioselevtive synthesis is probably the biggest achievment of the last 150 years.
Plus is covers a lot of other things: the discovery of chirality (and the later discovery that carbon is tetrahedral), disproving vitalism, thalidomide, etc.

It's not the easiest subject to sum-up... and I know that first-hand: I tried writting an account for wikipedia. My attempts are patchy but perhaps you could use it as a crib. (half the battle is finding the references)

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31. isodope on November 21, 2013 11:45 AM writes...

speaking of CFC's. The story of the ozone hole and the persistence to bring it to world attention and ultimately fix it.

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32. anon on November 21, 2013 11:47 AM writes...

Along similar lines, can anyone recommend a good book that chronicles the history of organic chemistry?

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33. Rhenium on November 21, 2013 11:56 AM writes...

26. UndergradMinion

Yes, please find the quote, I'm not sure if they had pizza in Weimar Germany, but it does sound interesting.

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34. Anonymous on November 21, 2013 12:08 PM writes...

the whole historical record you say? then you must talk about the synthesis of soap from of man's most important syntheses.

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35. Anonymous on November 21, 2013 12:09 PM writes...

the whole historical record you say? then you must talk about the synthesis of soap from of man's most important syntheses.

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36. Curt F. on November 21, 2013 12:16 PM writes...

I second X Chemist's suggestion of an entry for Thomas Midgley. Tetraethyl lead AND CFCs!? The man's a genius! No wait, a horror!

And I raise up the idea of an entry on any / all aspects of Harold Urey's many contributions, from the discovery of deuterium to the many contributions he made on the practical use of isotopes in geochemistry. The first paleoclimatic temperature proxy was 18O/16O in carbonate rocks, which Urey applied to a fossil Belemnite to determine the summer and winter temperatures during the 100 million year old fossil animal's life. Then there's the whole Miller-Urey thing.

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37. Dave on November 21, 2013 12:20 PM writes...

From more of an inorganic chemistry perspective:
- The discovery and structural elucidation of ferrocene, which really jump-started the modern era of inorganic/organometallic chemistry
- Ziegler-Natta polymerization, specifically the story about nickel contaminants in the autoclave (serendipity caused my poor cleaning procedures!) leading to the development of titanium-catalyzed ethylene polymerization
- Quasicrystals, and how Linus Pauling went to his grave convinced they were bullshit
- Definitely the development of NMR as a spectroscopic/diagnostic technique - taking the spectrum of ethanol (of course) and realizing that not all protons had exactly the same frequency
- The acetic acid process, still probably the largest scale process that uses homogeneous catalysis
- Certainly Werner's coordination theory, for which he won the only Nobel Prize in inorganic chemistry until ferrocene!

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38. Ted on November 21, 2013 12:27 PM writes...

French process chemists discovering copper mediated 1,4 additions the hard way.

Counter crystallization of stigmasterol and sitosterol from soy sterols (John Beaton). After 20 years, it led to the massive (skiable?) pile of sitosterol in Kalamazoo, prompting Pearlman, Livingston and Denmark to develop the SNAP chemistry for C-17 side chain degradation.


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39. Sili on November 21, 2013 12:32 PM writes...

Soveso and Bhopal - even if they've been done a million times before.

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40. Jal_Frezi on November 21, 2013 12:32 PM writes...

I did a poster on the history of synthesis for an open day a few years back - here are those that made the final cut after a lot of discussion

Wohler - urea
Perkin - mauveine
Komppa - camphor
Robinson - tropinone
Woodward - quinine
Djerassi - norethindrone
Sheehan - penicillin V
Corey - prostaglandins
Woodward/Eschenmoser - B12
Kishi - palytoxin
Halton - taxol

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41. I love mauve on November 21, 2013 12:32 PM writes...

William Henry Perkin's development of aniline dyes makes a great story for a general audience.

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42. christophe verlinde on November 21, 2013 12:33 PM writes...

Our heroes Democritus of Abdera and Leucippus who came up with the concept of the ATOM.

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43. cynical1 on November 21, 2013 12:37 PM writes...

Marie Curie and radium? Got the nobel and led to all those x-ray machines?? Marie got the Nobel in a woman!

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44. annon fore on November 21, 2013 12:39 PM writes...

nuclear energy

development of the atomic bomb

imaging (MRI, PET) tracers & dyes

discovery of "heavy hydrogen"

proteins (enzymes) as chemical catalysts

genetic codes and codons for amino acids

identification & isolation of Helium

NMR and imaging

structure & synthesis of penicillin

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45. jhb on November 21, 2013 12:41 PM writes...

Carl Djerassi and Haber/Bosch, both completely changed the world.

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46. Another derek on November 21, 2013 12:50 PM writes...

Marker, for steroids from diosgenin (barbasco)

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47. facehiker on November 21, 2013 12:51 PM writes...

1. serendipity and viagra
2. fleming and penicillin
3. kekule
4. John Fenn and electrospray

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48. gcs on November 21, 2013 1:00 PM writes...

Not sure if this really fits into the interesting anecdotal stories you're looking for, but a more modern area of interest is the emergence of Green Chemistry as a field, starting with the definition of the term in the mid-90's by Paul Anastas and John Warner.

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49. Semichemist on November 21, 2013 1:00 PM writes...

I'm very interested in picking this up when it comes out, but

And yes, the "Things I Won't Work With" manuscript is being worked on as well.

This is the best news I've gotten all month. ...It's been a slow month.

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50. Chris on November 21, 2013 1:29 PM writes...

Some really excellent suggestions in the comments so far.

How about the history of Alum, in UK it is a process that has actually reshaped the countryside.

The story of Mauveine was covered by the RSC but is certainly worth repeating

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51. DannoH on November 21, 2013 1:32 PM writes...

Have parameters been set for where Chemistry ends and Biology begins? Some additional ideas that I am sure have been identified above, that have had longer ranging effects to the everyday joey bag-o-donuts in the world:

Penicillin (and the beginning of antibiotic research)
UDMH / N2O4 (Ignition Style, rocketry)
XeCl (and other assorted excimers)
Bakelite (and the run of fully synthetic polymers / plastics)
Sulfur Mustard (and subsequent design of immunosuppresants and cytotoxics / antineoplastics)
DDT (the learning process in relation to halogenated organics in the environment and the food chain / bioaccumulation)

I can go on and on but the instructor of the training I am attending is giving me the evil eye...

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52. David Borhani on November 21, 2013 1:37 PM writes...

@40: Woodward: quinine instead of strychnine (which was filled with truly stupendous insights, IMHO, especially given the date and techniques available), or reserpine (just simply beautiful)?

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53. Brad on November 21, 2013 2:08 PM writes...

If you ask me, you should have a section about the phlogiston theory. I remember learning about that for the first time when reading "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". This part of scientific history was never mentioned at all in any of my school classes, but it really gave me a new respect for the first chemists/alchemists and what a ridiculously challenging project it is to understand the chemistry of the natural world without any starting point. The amazing thing is how much sense phlogiston actually makes given what they knew at the time (phlogiston is more or less anti-oxygen). It probably dovetails quite nicely into Lavoisier.

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54. Pig Farmer on November 21, 2013 2:33 PM writes...

Humphry Davy's discovery of sodium and potassium, and contribution to the demonstration that chlorine and iodine were elements (also his poor treatment of Faraday).
Hennig Brand and Phosphorus.
Crick, Watson, Franklin, Wilkins and DNA.
Glenn Seaborg and the transuranium elements
Hermann Emil Fischer and his many contributions to organic chemistry.
Wallace Carothers and Nylon
David Phillips and Lysozyme
Mendeleev and the periodic table
and then of course you should finish it all with the Great Pharma Crisis, just in case you've made anyone want to become a chemist!

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55. gippgig on November 21, 2013 2:39 PM writes...

Look thru all the comments made about exhibits for a chemistry museum. Also, the discovery of Es & Fm in fallout from the first thermonuclear test.

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56. Hap on November 21, 2013 2:57 PM writes...

@52: Strychnine and reserpine were much prettier than quinine, but the synthesis of quinine, I think, captured the general imagination and publicity more than his others. People thought that there might be a better route to antimalarial drugs, or that it might mitigate the "supply problem" for quinine (words that probably should haunt nearly every natural product synthesis paper since). I assume that played into why Stork attempted to disprove the synthesis, because it mattered so much and was potentially not what it claimed to be.

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57. Mad Dog on November 21, 2013 2:59 PM writes...

I second 14 with the "Van't Hoff's (& Le Bel's) proposal of tetrahedral arrangement, and the ridicule it was initially received with".

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58. BiotechDueDiligence on November 21, 2013 3:05 PM writes...

Congrats! This will be a must read and thank you for the links to other relevant titles in the series. I'll add the titles to my BiotechDueDiligence "library" of suggested books in the biomedical sphere. I've linked the page here is anyone is interested since we are in that shopping season!

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59. anonymous on November 21, 2013 3:05 PM writes...

Merrifield's work on peptide synthesis might be worthwhile. It opened up new ways of looking at proteins.

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60. KevinM on November 21, 2013 4:06 PM writes...

the development of solvents

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61. Chrispy on November 21, 2013 4:13 PM writes...

How about the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen? This is why we're not all farmers. You could also throw in some Dust Bowl stuff.

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62. X Chemist on November 21, 2013 4:41 PM writes...

This may not be quite chemistry enough, but the coolest thing I found out this year was how absolute stereochemistry was defined. They guessed. No, really. Yep, at some point someone decided - arbritrarily - that (+)-glyceraldehyde was (R). Wasn't until someone invented the anomalous dispersion X-ray technique (195