Field of Science

Who are your favorite technical writers in chemistry?

There is a surprisingly common belief among scientists that the public speaking skills of most scientists are inversely correlated to their achievements in science. This is certainly true of many chemists I have seen, including some Nobel Laureates who would put a fly on the wall to sleep. I have attended three ACS meeting and I can probably count two or three speakers whose speaking skills matched the high level of their research accomplishments (Dennis Dougherty, Eric Jacobsen and Ron Breslow all come to mind; Dougherty was a hoot).

Surprisingly, this is a phenomenon also seen in technical scientific articles. Some of the best chemists in the world are also masters of long-winded explanations. So it is always refreshing to see someone who has achieved a lot in science and is also able to explain his or her science to the community in concise and creative words. I am not talking about popular chemistry writers here (although that is another rare breed); the papers I am thinking of are strictly technical in nature.

So what makes a technical chemistry paper readable? Simplicity, certainly; the material that you present should be easily understandable to someone skilled in the trade. Ideally it should also be comprehensible to fellow chemists in other fields and perhaps even to related scientists in different fields. Secondly, the material should drive home the creative impact of the work. If it's a synthesis you are describing, the language should make clear the elegance, economy and practical utility of your synthesis. If the paper is structural, it should drive home the uniqueness, interactions and functional relevance of your chemical or biochemical structure. If computational, the paper should highlight the advantage of your computational method over other approaches, emphasize the connection to experiment and clearly enlighten experimentalists about the strengths and limitations of the approach.

Ultimately, your paper should make clear the unique vantage point that your particular field of chemistry enjoys. If it's a review, it should stand as the defining review in the field by virtue of the scope and explanatory power of your writing. Most importantly, it should be a paper which you keep coming back to under diverse circumstances. During the course of my brief chemical career I have come across a handful of chemists and their papers that satisfy these criteria. In some cases there's a single memorable paper while in others there's a whole slew Here are a few from that collection:

1. Jack Dunitz: Dunitz, now in his nineties and still doing research at the ETH, is not only one of the leading crystallographers of the twentieth century but also one of the best technical writers in chemistry I have encountered. Three of his papers have especially stood out for me for their brevity and creativity. One is his papers is titled "Organic Fluorine Hardly Ever Accepts Hydrogen Bonds" which should be required reading for every structural and medicinal chemist. Another is "The Entropic Cost of Bound Water Molecules" (Science, 1994, 264, 670) which puts an upper limit on the free energy that you can get from displacing water molecules in protein binding sites. A third paper is "Win Some, Lose Some: Enthalpy-Entropy Compensation in Organic and Biological Systems" (Chem. & Biol. 1995, 2, 709) which advances an elegant and very simple argument for the relative unimportance of hydrogen bonds in molecular recognition; basically entropy and enthalpy almost perfectly cancel each other out for a hydrogen bond . All three papers are devastatingly brief and drive home some very important points.

2. Ken Dill: Ken Dill at UCSF is one of the world's leading experts on protein folding and structure. In 1990 he wrote a review titled "Dominant Forces in Protein Folding" (free PDF) which still stands as an authoritative review on the topic. This review is one of the most highly cited papers in Biochemistry since the journal's publication. What is remarkable about the article is the sheer amount of territory Dill covers, from the hydrophobic event and molecular dynamics to experimental studies of protein folding. Much has been learnt since 1990 but the basic ideas in the paper are still valid and it remains a commanding overview of the field.

3. R B Woodward: Enough has been said about the man on this blog, but his papers often constituted poetry in (electronic) motion. Woodward's language had that special tinge that comes from having a personal relationship with every single compound that he encountered, from the simple nitric acid to vitamin B12. Almost any of his papers is breathtaking in both language and content, but I will especially recommend his famous works on strychnine (Tetrahedron, 1963, 19, 247) and reserpine (Tetrahedron, 1958, 2, 1) as masterpieces of scientific writing- and of literature.

4. K C Nicolaou: Say whatever you want about the man, but his review articles have an unmistakable feel of heroic achievement. Yes, maybe he exaggerates a little and yes, maybe the rash of pictures from Greek mythology is a little too much, but the man has written some of the best reviews of organic syntheses. And like Woodward, Nicolaou does an admirable job in his reviews of bringing out the excitement, beauty and achievement of the field. My favorites? Brevetoxin B and the CP molecules.

5. Anthony Nicholls: More recently, I have found computational chemist Anthony Nicholls of OpenEye to be an unusual clear and incisive technical writer. What is notable about his papers is the careful dissection of all factors involved in a particular system as well as an honest admission of limitations of current methods. His papers present a balanced perspective of theoretical and computational methods and clearly point out gaps and opportunities for improvement. I would especially recommend his co-authored review on metrics for evaluating and presenting computational methods in drug design and a critical and enlightening study of solvation of organic molecules that points to the challenges in calculating properties of complex systems.


  1. Hey!

    I'm still not able to understand those technical articles, but I'd like to know some books easily understood by someone who is not yet a chemist but have some knowledge on that.

    I guess I'm not being specific, but what I mean is: there are several books on biology and physics designed for the general public, but I can name very few related to chemistry. Could you name some of the authors/books?

  2. I would recommend books like Philip Ball's "H2O: A Biography of Water" and "Designing the Molecular World", Sam Kean's "The Disappearing Spoon", Oliver Sacks's "Uncle Tungsten", "Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History", Roald Hoffmann's "The Same and Not the Same" and Paul Strathern's "Mendeleyev's Dream" among others.

  3. Donna Blackmond's to-the-point accounts of her considerations of autocatalysis and chirality are clear and concise, but somewhat chatty as well. (Not too many well received papers include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in their citations.) Her rather casual approach works well with the often necessary deep and complex lines of reasoning, and helps bring us successfully to the end of her papers. (For Alice’s splash in the recent technical literature see “If Pigs Could Fly” Chemistry: A Tutorial on the Principle of Microscopic Reversibility in Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2009, 48, 2648 – 2654.)

  4. Ah yes, the predictable fellatio of the alcoholic Woodward.

  5. I strongly enjoyed all the texts authored by Orchin & Jaffe.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS