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Posts Tagged → named reactions

What’s In A Name? For Chemists, Their Field’s Soul

This post was originally published at Scientific American’s Guest Blog. Don’t forget to check out all the contributions to the Scientific American Blog Network’s Chemistry Day!

By 1992, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved, and the entire world’s political, economic, and military alliances were in the throes of transformation. But you could forgive officials at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) if they didn’t notice much of a difference.

At the time, they were still embroiled in a very Cold War-era standoff. At issue was one of the biggest prizes in the field of chemistry– naming rights for new elements in the periodic table. In the 1960s, American and Russian laboratories both laid claim to the discoveries of elements 104 and 105. And IUPAC had to play the role of arbiter. It took until 1997 to sort out the squabble, and along the way, several other new elements got dragged into the controversy, which some nuclear chemists dubbed the Transfermium Wars.

In the end, the Americans got their way on element 104, which was officially named Rutherfordium, in honor of British chemist and physicist Ernest Rutherford. Element 105, Dubnium, is named for the Russian town of Dubna. Belying the decades-long conflict, IUPAC explained its decision in rather understated terms:

Continue reading →

CENtral Science Represents at Scientific American Blogs’ Chemistry Day

Devoted CENtral Science followers may recall two posts about a big development in the blogosphere that went up at Terra Sigillata last month. There, my esteemed blog colleague David Kroll played host to a vibrant discussion about the shiny new Scientific American blog network– of course congratulating the massive effort on the part of Chief Editor and Community Manager Bora Zivkovic and many others that led to its creation, but also noting the paucity of chemistry blogs on the high-profile new network. The discussion spilled over into other prominent blogs, including those of American University chemist Matt Hartings and San Jose State U. professor of philosophy (and physical chemist by training) Janet Stemwedel. Well, SciAm’s blogerati were clearly listening. Today, in honor of the International Year of Chemistry and the IUPAC World Chemistry Congress in Puerto Rico, it’s all chemistry all day today at the Scientific American blog network.

What exactly does that mean? A smorgasbord of chemistry blog posts, both from regular SciAm contributors and guest bloggers. There’s even a Twitter hashtag, #SciAmChem. Bora has put together the master list of posts. I’m a bit biased, but I’d like to highlight two of them:

From CENtral’s own David Kroll: Drugs From The Crucible of Nature

Bora was even nice enough to extend me an invitation to guest blog with this illustrious group. It’s an honor to blog about one of my favorite topics, named reactions, for Scientific American.
From C&EN’s own Carmen Drahl: What’s In A Name? For Chemists, Their Field’s Soul

Of course, scores of other great posts are on the list, including writing from Hartings, Stemwedel, Ashutosh of Curious Wavefunction, Deborah Blum of Speakeasy Science, Antony Williams of ChemSpider/ChemConnector and SciAm blogger Michelle Clement, who works for the American Chemical Society.

It’s been a great day for chemistry blogging. But C&EN Assistant Managing Editor Amanda Yarnell put it best this morning on Twitter:

amandayarnell: Grt posts on @sciamblogs today by @discodermolide @sciencegeist @chemconnector & more. Here’s to hoping there’s not just 1 day of #sciamchem

The Guy With The Namesake Ligand: Brett Fors

Brett Fors (Drahl/C&EN)

To troll the nightly poster sessions at the National Organic Symposium is to combine stargazing with a high school reunion. Nobel laureates rub elbows with undergraduates presenting their work. Graduate school labmates who haven’t seen each other in years catch up. And a spread of food, wine, and beer fuels attendees through the midnight hour.

It was here that I ran into Brett P. Fors, who just obtained his Ph.D. from Stephen Buchwald’s lab at MIT. Fors has already been accorded a privilege that few chemists can claim– he has a ligand named after him. I’ve had a longstanding interest in how chemists name things, so I couldn’t resist asking Fors about that ligand– better known as BrettPhos. Continue reading →

In Search Of Mizoroki And Heck

Folks who read my story on named reactions this week might wonder why I chose to highlight the Heck reaction, or Mizoroki-Heck reaction. Sure, it’s one of the most well-known reactions in organic chemistry, but how’d I narrow it down?

Well, the answer is that I didn’t narrow anything down. Reading the phrase “Mizoroki-Heck reaction” was what got me interested in the topic of named reactions in the first place. Last fall, I wrote a short news story about a new process that had the potential to complement the chemistry. I got my Ph.D. in an organic chemistry lab, so I’d certainly read about the Heck reaction even though I’d never gotten a chance to use it. So reading “Mizoroki-Heck” caught me by surprise. (Note: there was a discussion of this last fall on CBC that I’d missed until recently). I started asking around about the name. And then I started asking about the men behind it. I just happened to get lucky that the story had so many layers.

Heck with wife Soccoro and a student

Heck with wife Soccoro and a student

Heck, Snieckus, and cobalt chemistry

Heck with Snieckus lab


I worked on this story on-and-off for months, simultaneously trying to track down Mizoroki and Heck. Working from home during the big snowstorms that paralyzed DC, I reached Doug Taber at the University of Delaware, who was a former colleague of Heck’s. The best way to reach Heck in the Philippines was by phone, I learned. Taber gave me Heck’s phone number, but when I called I got an incomprehensible recording, presumably in the Tagalog language. But wait a minute, I thought. Maureen (that’s C&EN’s deputy-editor-in-chief Maureen Rouhi) speaks Tagalog. She can help.

So early the next morning, Maureen dialed Heck’s phone number. Thanks to her, I scored a 7AM interview with the man himself a few days later. Speaking with Heck over the phone was surreal. He was funny and self-deprecating. He recalled meeting Mizoroki once, but couldn’t remember the details of their meeting. During the entire interview, I could hear a “ka-chunk” sound in the background. That was his washing machine.

In my story, I described how Heck retired in 1989 after he ran into problems finding funding for his research. I also mentioned that in 2006, he returned to the bench and one of his first loves, cobalt carbonyl chemistry, for a sabbatical at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Victor Snieckus hosted Heck during the sabbatical, but he hadn’t been able to reach Heck by phone or letter for some time. I was happy to be able to pass along the correct contact information. In return Snieckus provided several photos from Heck’s sabbatical time to C&EN, and here we’re posting the best of them for your viewing pleasure.

We almost ran the story without a photo of Tsutomu Mizoroki, the late Japanese chemist who published the first example of what most chemists call the Heck reaction. Emeritus professor Jiro Tsuji and Takakazu Yamamoto of Tokyo Institute of Technology helped me piece together Mizoroki’s story, but a photo of Mizoroki that Tsuji sent got lost in the mail. And officials at the Center for Public Information at Tokyo Tech, where Mizoroki worked until his death, had a photo but did not have permission to release it to me. (During my quest I was treated to the Center’s hold muzak for a bit. Imagine a tinny MIDI version of Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. Over and over.) When I started my research, I couldn’t believe that people had written entire tomes about the reaction and none of them had Mizoroki’s photo. Yes, the chemistry is a critically important part, but I just wanted to see what Mizoroki looked like.

The day my story was due, I got Mizoroki’s photo at last- chemical historian Jeff Seeman had put out a call for help on my behalf some time earlier, and via Koji Nakanishi of Columbia University, I got in touch with Takashi Takahashi and Shinichiro Fuse of Tokyo Tech. Not sure what they told the Center for Public Information, but I got the photo that we ran in the magazine the next day. With help from Mizoroki’s daughter, Ms. Akiko Morita, Takahashi even managed to dig up another photo, shown here. I still hold out hope that the original photo from Tsuji will show up in the mail someday. But I couldn’t have written this story without the help of dozens of chemists around the world, and I’d like to say thank you to them all.

Images of Heck courtesy Victor Snieckus. Image of Mizoroki courtesy Takashi Takahashi and Mizoroki’s daughter, Ms. Akiko Morita

Named Reactions’ Biggest Fan

Jie Jack Li is an unabashed chemistry fanboy. The author of several books on chemistry topics, he is perhaps most famous for being the author of several editions of ”Name Reactions”, a popular reference book for organic chemists. I interviewed Jack for my story this week on named reactions, and during our interview he revealed a fascinating factoid.

“Whenever I meet a person who has a reaction named after them, I take a picture with them. I have millions of pictures!” he says.

Well, maybe not millions. But the little bit of the collection he shared with me is pretty impressive. Below you’ll see Jack with Akira Suzuki, Steve Buchwald, Bob Grubbs, and E.J. Corey.

I’ve been to the Priestley Medal events at the ACS meeting and know for a fact that Jack here isn’t alone. If you’ve got a picture with a famous chemist you’d like to share, email it to me at c(underscore)drahl(at)acs(dot)org. I’ll publish the best of the bunch in a photo gallery on this blog.

How Should Reactions Be Named?

Chemists know that elements aren’t the only trappings of the science that get names. This week, I wrote about named reactions, the special reactions at the crossroads of science and culture in organic chemistry. Now, while both elements and reactions get named, the naming process couldn’t be more different. Element names have to get by a full-blown committee, as recently happened for element 112, copernicium.

The reaction-naming process is far from systematic. There do seem to be some unwritten rules, though. Named reactions have to be useful to many chemists, not just the ones who invented the reaction. Then there’s the named reactions version of the rule from the movie “Fight Club”. You remember the line, “You don’t talk about Fight Club,” right? Well, you don’t talk about your own named reaction, either, at least according to Bob Bergman at UC Berkeley, who has a namesake reaction of his own. “In my own publications I don’t call the Bergman reaction the Bergman reaction. It has to be up to the community to make it happen.”

When I spoke with Bergman, he wondered aloud whether the element naming model could be used for the process of naming reactions in organic or inorganic chemistry. People could submit names and a committee could decide whether credit for the discovery or development was clear-cut enough to designate a name. “These decisions are never agreed to by everyone,” and a committee might help up the sense of fairness. But on the other hand, then there’s another committee out there for chemists to have to serve on.

How do you think reactions should get their names? Weigh in at the poll I’ve created here. Feel free to contribute more creative options than the two I’ve proposed. I might mention some of the more intriguing propositions here on the blog.