The rightful scope of chemistry | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 82 Issue 28 | p. 6 | Letters
Issue Date: July 12, 2004

Letters

Department: Letters

The rightful scope of chemistry

 I have been following with interest the discussion of Lois Ember’s Insight piece on the Bush Administration’s rush to war (C&EN, March 15, page 34) and Rudy Baum’s editorial on including such opinion pieces in C&EN (C&EN, April 26, page 3). It strikes me that one important point has not yet been stressed in this discussion. Many letter writers opined that, independent of whether one agrees or disagrees with Ember’s apparent opposition to the war in Iraq, the editor should not have printed her article because, in the words of one letter writer, it “had nothing to do with chemistry” (C&EN, May 31, page 3).

This could not be further from the truth. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) come in three flavors: biological, chemical, and nuclear. Of these, two (or even two-and-a-half) have been developed with strong input from the chemistry community. Without the hard work of many chemists, and the resources of many chemical companies and governmental chemistry laboratories, we would not have chemical or nuclear weapons. We might not even have biological weapons.

I suspect that the letter writers really meant to say that the decision to use these weapons, or in our case here, the decision to start a war to find these weapons, is political and not scientific, and thus not a “fit” subject for an opinion piece in C&EN. According to this view, we scientists develop new knowledge and give it to the world at large—how the world (that is, politicians and businesses) actually uses this knowledge is not our concern.

Although individual scientists are certainly entitled to hold this view, they are not entitled to force such a view on the rest of us by censoring such discussions from the pages of our professional magazines. Now it is true that Ember’s piece concerned mainly the close-minded way in which the Bush Administration misused intelligence reports to support its drive to war. Nevertheless, Bush’s political decision played on U.S. fears of the possible use of WMD, weapons that have been developed largely by chemists. We made ’em—we should care how they’re used!

Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, and John Polanyi are just a few illustrious scientists who have devoted their efforts both to uncovering new knowledge and to keeping alive the societal discussion of how this knowledge is utilized. We owe them and Lois Ember and Rudy Baum a great debt of gratitude.

Todd P. Silverstein
Salem, Ore.

Science and beauty

A popularly held belief by nonscientists is that science somehow destroys the beauty that they see in the world by subjecting it to analytical and mathematical analyses. I like to refer them to a statement by Richard Feynman (as quoted in James Gleick's wonderful book "Genius"):

“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms ... I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination—stuck on this little carousel, my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part ... What is the pattern or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

Estelle K. Meislich
New Milford, N.J.

Natural products research is key

C&EN does an excellent job reporting milestones in total synthesis, as in the total synthesis of amythiamicin D, for example (C&EN, April 12, page 30). As you continue to report these valuable studies in the future, I hope you will agree that it is important to more consistently give credit to the natural products chemists who originally isolate and characterize these molecules.

C&EN seems to report less frequently on the discovery of new natural products than on synthetic achievements, but citing the natural products literature, in the context of a new total synthesis, will at least give these scientists some measure of recognition.

By not citing these sources, an overall impression may be formed that chemists “dream up” such complex molecules in the lab. This impression, in fact, seems to be most common among the general public but is also sometimes observed among chemists themselves. The idea that chemists have such impressive skills at de novo synthesis has already taken deep root in the pharmaceutical industry, as evidenced by the elimination of many natural products programs, including those at Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and others.

Admittedly, some of these companies have recently begun outsourcing for natural product “libraries.” It is easy to believe that the relative paucity of new lead drug candidates, as recent reports suggest, is due in part to the impressions gleaned from media reports that fail to credit the discoverers of molecules but rather glorify the synthesizers, formulators, and clinicians.

Gil Belofsky
Tulsa, Okla.

 
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