Field of Science

R B Woodward. Vitamin B12. 3.5 hours. Enough said.

Dylan Stiles (of pioneering "Tenderbutton" fame - username tender, password button in case you want a trip down memory lane) has uploaded a rare and valuable 3.5 hour lecture of the demigod of organic synthesis, R B Woodward, giving a talk on his joint total synthesis of vitamin B12 with ETH Zurich's Albert Eschenmoser.

The talk starts with a charming and funny introduction by Canadian biochemist David Dolphin who dwells on Woodward's background and achievements. Before the talk begins an assistant makes daiquiris. Yes, daiquiris. After that the master takes the reins.

This is a demonstration of intellectual prowess from another day and age, when synthesis was king and R B Woodward was Zeus with lightning bolts. There are four important observations to note here: first, that it's about vitamin B12 which at that time was the most complex organic molecule ever synthesized, second, that it starts with a neat lineup of cigarettes on the table, all of which have been smoked by the end, third, that there are daiquiris on the table and in Woodward's hand, and fourth, that the talk is a short and breezy three and a half hours long. All four of these facts attest to the force of nature that called itself Robert Burns Woodward.

The B12 synthesis involved a truly remarkable trans-Atlantic relay comprising almost a hundred postdocs and graduate students and the synthesis itself is almost a hundred steps. At the end of the talk Woodward places a series of flags on the table, each representing the country of origin of the postdocs and students who worked on the project (99 from 19 countries to be exact). Since then no one has attempted the construction, probably because of lack of interest but also likely because of lack of stamina.

As for the length, Woodward's talks were legendary, and he was known to fill entire blackboards with beautifully drawn structures - using multiple colors of chalk. He would start at the top left hand corner and finish at the bottom right hand corner. As attested to by this marathon lecture, the length of the talk was whatever Woodward wanted it to be. His colleagues started measuring lecture time in units of milli-Woodwards, with his longest talk pegged as 1 Woodward.

A former postdoc of his once said that they generated three anecdotes about Woodward: 1. He never gets drunk (as evidenced by his heavy drinking of scotch), 2. He never gets tired (as evidenced by his ability to work eighteen hours a day and make do with only 3-4 hours of sleep every night) and 3. He never perspires.

You can certainly validate the second and third anecdotes by watching this video. And let me know if you survive through to the end.

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