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Reactions: Kudos on air bag article, what Maitland Jones Jr.’s firing reveals about organic chemistry, and why we need guidelines around AI

December 30, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 1


Letters to the editor

Air bags

Kudos to Bethany Halford for writing an excellent What’s That Stuff article that provides background while updating the reader on how the nature of the chemical reactions that inflate the air bag have changed and evolved (C&EN, Nov. 21, 2022, page 26). I even went to the website provided to check as to whether either of my two auto vehicles were ever recalled!

Paul R. Loconto
Okemos, Michigan

Maitland Jones Jr. and organic chemistry

Maitland Jones Jr., whom I’ve known since I was a graduate student at Princeton University in the 1960s, has devoted his academic life to research and to the teaching of organic chemistry at both Princeton and, after he retired, New York University. The unfortunate conclusion to his academic life was made public in an Oct. 3 article in the New York Times, outlined in the December issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and described in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The episode tarnished both his teaching and New York University’s relationship to its faculty in how the administration dealt with the problem. The whole episode is a tragedy, which, as outlined below, arises from the long-accepted manner in which undergraduate organic chemistry is universally taught.

I don’t know when medical schools first began to use the grade in organic chemistry and the answers to organic chemistry–based questions as the bar for entrance. Whenever it was, the decision was certainly applauded by schools teaching undergraduate organic chemistry. Any factor that increases enrollment in a particular course is greatly welcomed. But in the case of organic chemistry, there was an unfortunate consequence: too many students in the course are there not for the study of this beautiful science but as a passageway to get into medical school and other related postgraduate studies. Inevitably this leads to a fear of the course and then necessarily to a poor relationship for many of the students between the course and the professor teaching it. We who have taught undergraduate organic chemistry saw this in the low attendance at lectures, the exceptionally poor grades, and undergraduate organic chemistry’s reputation. It is a course that weeds students out.

We should discuss whether this science should continue to affect medical school entry and how organic chemistry should be presented to undergraduates. Most textbooks rarely connect the science to its foundational importance in modern life. Why are we not presenting the science in context and showing its historical development, including the fascinating characters that played a role? There is a great story to be told to increase interest in this science and its principles.

Organic chemistry need not be made easier to learn but rather shown to be part of understanding the wider world, to be worth knowing.

Mark M. Green
Cambridge, New York

Guiding principles needed for AI

Am I the only person who felt both fascination and dread while reading “Brain on a Chip Plays Pong”? This Newscripts short (Nov. 28, 2022, page 32) describes how the start-up Cortical Labs trained an organoid of human neurons on a chip to become better and better at playing Pong. When recombinant DNA technology was first developed, scientists and ethicists gathered at Asilomar State Beach, California, to draw up guidelines so experiments could be conducted safely and ethically. With the development of the GPT-3 chatbot, the Dall-E 2 image creator, and now biocybernetic brains, the time for artificial intelligence scientists and ethicists (and probably national governments) to gather together and hash out some guardrails for AI has arrived. The need for this was anticipated by Isaac Asimov nearly 80 years ago in his I, Robot series, but even Asimov could not anticipate the full range of horrors that now loom on the horizon. Off the top of my head, I can recommend two general guidelines: (1) AI will be designed to augment people, not replace them, and (2) biocybernetic research will be limited to basic research and closely supervised by an international panel of ethicists and scientists.

Donald Hirsh
Ewing, New Jersey



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