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A Crusade Against Holy Grails

Holy grails increasingly litter the scientific literature; this writer is on a quest to banish them

by Bethany Halford
March 30, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 13

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

LAB COAT, goggles, gloves—this is the equipment I expect a chemist to wear when embarking on a scientific quest. But I'm beginning to wonder whether more of us shouldn't be sporting swords, shields, and chain mail, what with the alarming proliferation of "holy grails" in the chemistry literature.

Perhaps you've noticed them, too. Sifting through 2008 ACS journals alone, grail hunters can find mention of "the holy grail of photoelectrochemistry," "the holy grail in small molecule-RNA binding," and "the holy grail of room temperature Ullmann condensation reactions," along with a couple dozen others.

The phrase first appeared in an ACS journal in 1968, when Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Associate Editor D. H. Michael Bowen used it in an editorial on teaching and research, suggesting that following the adventures of a professor "in his pursuit of research's Holy Grail" is more exciting than memorizing dull facts.

Ten years later, Stephen J. Lippard, then at Columbia University but currently at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put the first holy grail into a research article in an ACS journal (Acc. Chem. Res. 1978, 11, 211) when he wrote a paper on how platinum antitumor complexes interact with polynucleotides and kill cancer cells. "As with the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the joy thus far has been in the searching," Lippard wrote. "For although these two objectives have not yet been achieved, there have been some delightful findings along the way."

Since then, holy grails in chemical research have been steadily on the rise. Including Lippard's, three holy grails appeared in ACS journals in the 1970s, and five could be found in the 1980s. During the 1990s, 39 research articles in ACS journals made mention of a holy grail, and since 2000, 169 research articles invoked the sacred goblet. A SciFinder search shows this trend of chemists gravitating toward grails holds true for non-ACS journals as well.

Now, I was always under the impression that there was only one Holy Grail—the legendary vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper that was later sought by Arthurian knights. But the multiplicity of holy grails in the chemistry literature suggests that they are about as common as plastic beer cups at Sci-Mix. And am I the only one to think it's strange to equate a scientific endeavor with an object of religious mysticism?

Officially, the phrase is banned here at C&EN (although holy grails have a funny way of insinuating themselves into science writers' copy regardless of such bans). Were I to tell my colleagues that we should be writing about a research finding because it is a holy grail of something or other, the response would surely be this snarky response: "A holy grail? Did someone find another one?"

"There are lots of other ways to describe a seminal contribution to a discipline. Like 'seminal contribution,' 'important advance,' and the like," C&EN Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum says of the grail prohibition.

Charles Petit, a veteran science journalist, keeps an eye out for these "numberless chalices," as he calls them, in his role as head tracker for the "Knight Science Journalism Tracker"—a blog that highlights and critiques mainstream science reporting.

"What is it with any and all holy grails as ever-potent catnip for metaphor-hungry science and medical writers? How is it that French poetry, British Arthurian literature, and the romance of knights off on quests—one that not even Monty Python's satire could cure—took such deep root in the imaginations of some writers in their youths (and of their sources)?" Petit opined after reading a December 2007 BBC story in which a tissue engineering researcher declared artificial blood vessels "one of the Holy Grails of regenerative medicine."

"Gad. It's just one of several such grails? And this in just one subspecialty?" was Petit's response to the story. "How many holy grails does it take to make them, you know, plain old grails?"

Science writer Steve Nadis, described as the "chief holy grail hunter in all of science," has written several articles in the venerable Annals of Improbable Research about his quest for the holy grail of science writing: a complete catalog of all instances of science writers claiming X is the holy grail of Y.

IN THE COURSE of my grail hunting for this story, I contacted several prominent chemists who'd referred to a "holy grail" in a publication at some point in their careers. I asked whether they thought, as I do, that the phrase is overused.

The most interesting response came from Harvard University's George M. Whitesides, who was a coeditor on a special "Holy Grails in Chemistry" issue of Accounts of Chemical Research (1995, 28, 91). "If one is into semantics or semiotics, there is no excuse for using 'holy grail' in chemistry. There are fields that have single, unified objectives, which, if reached, would revolutionize the field," he says. "I don't think that there is a single thing that would turn all of chemistry on its ear, since one of chemistry's strengths is its diversity."

But I must begrudgingly admit that Whitesides also made a good case for not discarding holy grails entirely. " 'Holy grail' has come to mean 'solution to a really big problem.' The idea that one size fits all is, I think, unfair to the range of opportunities in chemistry, but it is at least clear what the phrase means," he points out. "If two words give a sense of expansiveness and ambition and centrality, why not use them? 'Holy grail' means something to every chemist and to most others. It may mean something different to every chemist, but there are worse confusions. Better multiple grails than none."

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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