One of the many interesting objects Stoddart created in the laboratory was a Borromean ring, a structure which had been mathematically conceived for some time but not physically realized until 2004 when Stoddart and his group chemically synthesized it. From a mathematical standpoint a Borromean ring is a good example of an object from the field of knot theory. It is a complex knot consisting of several interlocking rings. The special property of these rings is that you cannot cut any of them without having the entire structure break apart. From a chemical standpoint the Borromean ring is a tantalizing example of self-assembly, a process in which the individual molecules making up the ring simply 'find' each other and assemble; the chemist has to merely make the individual building blocks and find the right chemical conditions (solvent, temperature etc.) under which they can self-assemble.
|The first molecular Borromean ring: 18 individual |
molecules automatically self-assembly under the right conditions
"It’s all part of life’s rich fashion. It’s not all a bowl of cherries. She was a brilliant scientist, much more able than I. She succumbed to breast cancer, and she fought that disease like no one’s business for 12 years. She became known, ironically, as the little iron Englishwoman of Santa Monica. So that was Black Tuesday, it was the day that her oncologist said to me that the fight was over because the cancer had metastasized to her brain, and she always said that if that happened the fight would be over. So I came back to the lab from the clinic feeling quite low, and there was the structure of the Borromean Rings. So as they say, every black cloud has a silver lining."Stoddart clearly enjoyed a very close relationship with his wife, and anyone who has lost a close spouse must know how incredibly hard and unique the pain is. Here's something that struck me: compared to the tragedy of losing a loved one, a specific scientific discovery might seem to provide negligible succor. And yet science has always been an amazing source of strength and certainty in tumultuous times, and this is one of its supremely important and reassuring qualities. Whether one is talking about European physicists finding refuge in the field of quantum mechanics during the politically fraught 1930s or, on a very personal level, a scientist finding refuge in the glow of scientific discovery in the shadow of a personal tragedy, this kind of novelty and joy in discovering new facts of nature is one of the things that makes science so much worthwhile. By recounting this moving story, Stoddart demonstrates not just the joy of science but its quintessential quality as a human endeavor. It is a triumph of the spirit over both scientific and personal hurdles. Thank you, Fraser Stoddart.
Note: Stuart Cantrill who got his PhD with Stoddart tells me that the first Borromean rings based on DNA were made by Nadrian Seeman of NYU. Stoddart and his team's, however, were the first rings based on small organic molecules. Here's a review on these fascinating objects which Stu pointed me to.