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Impressions of Philadelphia

by Rudy M. Baum
August 30, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 35

Every American Chemical Society national meeting leaves attendees with a variety of mental images, some large, some small. Here are a few of mine from last week's meeting in Philadelphia.

HEROES. The 2004 Heroes of Chemistry Awards honored 13 industrial chemical scientists from four companies whose work is improving human health and well-being through the successful research and development of commercial biotechnology products that involve chemistry or biochemistry contributions. The awards are sponsored by the ACS Office of Industry Member Programs.

The glittering black-tie dinner honoring the scientists from 3M, QLT Inc., Schering-Plough, and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals was capped by a talk by James D. Watson, codiscoverer with Francis H. C. Crick of the structure of DNA. Watson's talk was an eloquent eulogy of Crick, who died of colon cancer on July 28 (C&EN, Aug. 23, page 38).

Watson talked about the research partnership he formed with Crick in Cambridge in 1951 and about the intense competition between the two of them and Linus C. Pauling. Pauling published a proposed structure for DNA in 1952, and when Watson and Crick reviewed the paper, they were amazed at how far off the mark Pauling was. Watson showed a series of letters between Pauling and Crick that, in their frosty formality, demonstrated the tension that existed between these two towering intellects. At the end of his talk, Watson showed a picture of himself and Crick together a few years ago at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and said, "Francis was always the person I could communicate with most quickly. We didn't need a lot of words to express our ideas to each other."

BUTTONS. There are always buttons at ACS meetings. Campaign buttons, buttons from committees and divisions, buttons from ACS offices. My favorite this year was from the ACS Legislative Action Network, and it bears a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "Science is my passion; politics, my duty."

ACS EXPOSITION. The exhibit hall at the Philadelphia Convention Center bustled on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with chemists visiting the more than 325 exhibiting companies.

At the Chemical & Engineering News booth on Monday, A. Paul Alivisatos, a chemistry professor at University of California, Berkeley, and editor of the ACS journal Nano Letters, talked about nanoscale science and technology, his journal, and the C&EN Online website NanoFocus. One feature that distinguishes research at the nanoscale, Alivisatos said, is that it tends to reverse the reductionist tendency of scientists to categorize themselves into ever more specialized subdisciplines. Research at the nanoscale, Alivisatos maintained, cuts across disciplines as few other scientific endeavors do.

ENERGY FOCUS. The five speakers at the morning session of "Fuels for the Future," a daylong presidential event cosponsored by the Division of Fuel Chemistry, seemed to be talking about two different topics. Kenneth S. Deffeys, a retired petroleum geologist, Princeton University professor, and author of "Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage," and Richard E. Smalley, chemistry and physics professor at Rice University and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, emphasized the looming crisis as demand for petroleum rapidly outstrips supply and the urgency of R&D to shift the world to nonfossil energy sources to head off devastating climate change.

By contrast, Stanley R. Bull, associate director of science and technology at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Shirley Neff, codirector of the American Bioenergy Association; and Drew Kodjak, program director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, talked about the painfully cautious steps that governments are taking toward developing renewable energy sources. It's not that Bull, Neff, and Kodjak didn't acknowledge the seriousness of the problem; it's just that the programs they described didn't have the sense of urgency about them that Deffeys and Smalley insist is required.

Deffeys projected a quote from economist Kenneth E. Boulding at the outset of his talk--"Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist"--that captures well the insanity of our current approach to energy issues.

Thanks for reading.


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