Field of Science

Glimpse into history

I would never have heard about a magazine called 'The Chemical Intelligencer' had I not been looking for some articles by the fiery and brilliant Michael Dewar (tropolone) on SciFinder. An article penned by Dewar and Derek Barton caught my eye because it was of a kind that I had never seen before. In the article, coauthored by a third scientist, the two chemists discuss why inspite of similar intelligence and significant contributions, only Barton and not Dewar won the Nobel prize. My curiosity was piqued and I ordered the entire volume for 1996 from storage. Instead of a single article, I was treated to a variety of articles about chemists and history. The editor of this magazine is Istvan Hargittai, a chemist who has written beautiful books about symmetry, and has combined the interviews from this magazine into Candid Science, a nice series of books in which he interviews the premier chemists of their time from every subfield of the subject, Nobelists and non-Nobelists who did Nobel calibre work. But now, some tidbits from the slew of articles:

1. Why did Barton and not Dewar get the Nobel? The author opines that Barton came from a more modest background and probably had to struggle harder, thus also trying his hand at 'popular' or conventional topics. Dewar was much more prolific, and focused on almost every nook and cranny of every field of chemistry. Dewar was also much more contentious, and often said unkind words to others that he later regretted. I personally believe that Barton's paper on conformational analysis in 1950 is one of the most significant papers in chemical history, and would have been quite enough to get him the Nobel. While Dewar did contribute very significantly to many areas of the subject, it is difficult to think of any single contribution by him that pervades such a ubiquitous landscape of chemical and biological ideas, both pure and applied. Later, Barton made two other important contributions- the Barton-McCombie reaction, and the nitrite photolysis reaction, a nice precursor to today's remote functionalization methods. Using the latter reaction, he synthesized 30g of androsterone, when the world supply was a few milligrams. For more info, read the autobiographies of the two from the splendid series of ACS Autobiographies, "Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams" edited by Jeffrey Seeman.

2. Interesting interview with H C Brown: Notice how he cleverly dodges the 2-norbornyl cation issue by saying, "We experimented with many kinds of secondary and tertiary 2-norbornyl systems and concluded that the 2-norbornyl cation must consist of two equilibrating structures." But of course, the cation is going to be stablized by substituents like phenyl in the 2 position. With this stabilization, you really can get two equilibrating structures. But what about the parent system, plain old 2-norbornyl cation itself? In any case, so much sweat and tears has been shed over the famous controversy that there is no more to say. I personally find it an absolutely fascinating episode in twentieth century chemistry.

3. Interview with Paul Scheuer: Yet again, someone who paid a tribute to Woodward's legendary chalk drawing performances. Scheuer was a first rate marine natural products chemist, in Hawai, where else.

4. Captain Nemo's chemistry: untangling the chemistry behind paragraphs from the classic Verne volume.

5. Portrait of P D Bartlett by Jack Roberts (Caltech): Names like Bartlett have become ghosts for the new generation. But let us forget not that it was people such as these who laid the foundations for all the organic chemistry we do and study today.

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