Celebrating 90 Years of Chemistry News Coverage

With this week's issue, C&EN celebrates its 90th anniversary. Even if I do say so myself, we've put out a pretty terrific edition. The bulk of our coverage this week is stories on nine major ways chemistry has had a profound effect on our world over the previous nine decades. (Thanks to Ash over at The Curious Wavefunction for his thoughts on the chemical bond and chemistry as the central science in response to this editorial package.)
Yummy celebratory cupcake

Happy anniversary, C&EN!

But we've put together a lot more than the main stories to celebrate this milestone. There's a supplemental timeline for starters. We've also compiled a list of readers' favorite articles and devoted a whole page to an inebriating Newscripts. Here on the network, Beth Halford will be celebrating Newscripts' 70th anniversary throughout the week with batches of Department of Obscure Information gems. We even have a crossword puzzle (I know this thrills some of you immensely)! And if you hadn't noticed the entries in the weekly roundups, let me draw your attention now to The Watch Glass tumblr, where former C&EN intern Deirdre Lockwood has been taking us on a random and fascinating walk through C&EN's archives. Obviously, not only has the science changed over the past nine decades, but how we share the news with you has as well. This anniversary issue is the first one in which online components were part of the planning process from the very beginning. I feel fortunate to be part of a publication eager to explore the opportunities digital platforms--blogs, social media, videos, interactive graphics, you name it--are creating for communicating news of the chemical world. I leave you not with a (real) cupcake or a toast, but with a charming anecdote Sarah Everts uncovered while working on her piece about the history of structural biology:
Alpbach View. Not a bad conference venue, eh? Credit: Wikimedia commons.

Alpbach View. Not a bad conference venue, eh? Credit: Wikimedia commons.

Talk to any old-school structural biologist--I mean the folks who solved protein structures in the 50s, 60s and 70s when uncovering the 3D topology of a small enzyme might take years or decades--and they'll wax nostalgically about the Alps. As I was working on this week's article about the history of structural biology, nearly everyone I interviewed mentioned a series of conferences that took place in the Austrian Alps, first in Hirschegg and then Alpbach. Max Perutz, who solved the structure of hemoglobin after a 22-year effort, and his fellow Austrian crystallographer in Munich named Walter Hoppe began organizing these Alpen conferences in the late 60s. The first one was “a turning point in the history of the field,” says Michael Rossmann, now at Purdue who initially worked with Perutz on hemoglobin. “Some people had thought that myoglobin and hemoglobin were just one-time splashes,” that protein crystallography wouldn’t go much further, he says. “But at the meeting you got the feeling that these two proteins were only just the beginning.”
A wooden model of hemoglobin made in 1959 by Perutz which was probably passed around at Alpbach. Credit: MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology

A wooden model of hemoglobin made by Perutz which was probably passed around at Alpbach. Credit: Laboratory for Molecular Biology

At the time, the field was so small, that all forty participants fit into the original hut, whose dining hall and conference room where one and the same, and also connected to the kitchen, says Robert Huber of the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, whose thesis supervisor was Hoppe. Skiing took place in the morning—sometimes with speed competitions—while science was discussed in the afternoons and evenings. “It was such as small community, people were encouraged to bring their families,” Huber says. “Everybody knew each other and what everybody was working on,” Rossmann says. Over the next few years, until the mid 1970s, Perutz and Hoppe hosted several other similar meetings in the Alps until the field had outgrown the mountain cabin venues. Researchers who were fortunate to attend these early meetings describe them with great nostalgia. New structures would garner applause, Huber says, and participants spend hours passing around pints of German beer and balsa wood models of proteins. Sometimes the crowd of scientists would don 3D glasses to squint at the stereochemical images of protein structures projected onto a screen, surely a curious sight for any hikers straggling by.
A far cry from the American Chemical Society meeting happening in Indy this week!

Author: Rachel Pepling

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the plug. I am going to make sure that this special issue which I enjoyed reading very much occupies a permanent place in my shelf. And I look forward to the 100th!