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Chemistry: Alive And Well

by Rudy M. Baum
October 18, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 42

I ’ve been on the road rather a lot recently. The first week of October, I was in Paris for the first two days of CPhI Worldwide. From Paris, I flew to Stanford University to attend the 25th Annual William S. Johnson Symposium, where I gave the after-dinner talk.

Coincidentally, the Nobel Prizes were announced during my travels. The following week, on Oct. 12, C&EN presented its 14th webinar, which featured Ei-ichi Negishi, who just happened to be one of the three winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reactions.

So I’ve been steeped in even more chemistry than usual in recent weeks. And it seems to me that the chemistry enterprise is in pretty good shape.

C&EN held a reception at CPhI on Monday evening to kick off the meeting. About 100 individuals from the custom and fine chemicals industry attended, and I chatted with a fair number of them. During the course of the meeting, I also met with a number of industry executives, including Roger Laforce, general manager at FIS; Michael Major, president and CEO of Cambridge Major Laboratories; Guy Villax, CEO of Hovione; and Raj Iyer, president of Arch Pharmalabs USA.

C&EN Senior Correspondent Ann M. Thayer and Senior Editor Rick Mullin also attended CPhI. In her first report from the conference, Thayer wrote that “the custom and fine chemicals industry is in a post-recessionary lull, and business is returning at a slower pace than many executives had hoped for” (C&EN, Oct. 11, page 9).

While that’s undoubtedly an accurate assessment, I did sense a note of optimism in most of the conversations I had at CPhI. The worst of the Great Recession does seem to be behind us. As Major pointed out to me, almost no company went out of business during the prolonged slump. Business is picking up, albeit more slowly than most would prefer.

This year’s Nobel Prizes were a pleasant surprise. I’m as big a fan of chemistry research at the interface with biology as anyone, but the recent string of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and in Physiology or Medicine going for work in biochemistry had become a bit much. This year, there wasn’t any prize for biochemical research at all! The chemistry prize went to three deserving chemists for developing one of the most important techniques in synthetic organic chemistry ever developed. The physics prize for discovering a way to produce graphene had a strong whiff of chemistry to it. And the prize in physiology or medicine for in vitro fertilization was for a medical advance (C&EN, Oct. 11, pages 7–9). All the Nobel Prizes in science this year were of a refreshingly practical nature.

The Johnson Symposium at Stanford honors a great synthetic organic chemist and the individual responsible for creating the outstanding chemistry department at that university. It is traditionally a celebration of organic chemistry. Its organizers this year—Stanford chemistry professors Chaitan 
Khosla, Barry M. Trost, and Paul A. Wender—are organic chemists of the first rank.

Curiously, only one of the seven speakers at this year’s symposium (all of them Nobel Laureates) is a bona fide synthetic organic chemist—Harvard’s E. J. Corey. Two of the others—Caltech’s Robert H. Grubbs and MIT’s Richard R. Schrock—certainly synthesize organic molecules; the olefin metathesis catalyses they have pioneered are extraordinarily powerful synthetic tools, but Schrock is an inorganic chemist and Grubbs is kind of a hybrid physical organic/inorganic chemist.

The other four speakers—Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann Institute, Andrew Fire of Stanford’s School of Medicine, Roderick MacKinnon of Rockefeller University, and Stanley Prusiner of the University of California, San Francisco—aren’t even chemists, and their talks weren’t about organic chemistry.

No matter. All of the talks were fascinating, and each of them had a strong chemical component. That the Johnson Symposium can feature such a broad lineup of speakers on such a broad range of topics, all of them highly relevant to chemistry, bodes well for the future of our science.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum


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