What’s In A Name? For Chemists, Their Field’s Soul
Aug03

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: The Commission hopes that the present collection of names will be accepted as a fair compromise between the various claims and suggestions. A Bunsen burner, named for German chemist Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen (Wikimedia Commons/NASA) All researchers name the trappings of their discipline– whether elements, equations, or species. To some extent, the naming happens as a matter of convenience, as a form of shorthand to convey a complex concept to a fellow scientist. But hidden within those monikers are the stories of science: sweeping triumphs, competition, the ascent of young stars. Chemists have a particular affinity for names– they name not only their elements but also their lab equipment, their reactions, their catalysts, even portions of catalysts called ligands, which modify catalyst activity. Unlike the elements, these namings aren’t regulated by IUPAC. Instead, they’re an informal process dictated by the community that plays out in the scholarly literature, in books, and at conferences. As a result, they are a fascinating window on how discoveries in chemistry become chemistry fundamentals, not to mention a way to learn the tales of legends in the field. Among the simplest examples of 2010’s Nobel-winning chemistry Consider 2010 chemistry Nobel Laureate Richard Heck, retired from the University of Delaware. Heck shared the prize with Ei-Ichi Negishi of Purdue University and Akira Suzuki of Japan’s Hokkaido University. Each of the three chemists has...

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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...

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The Guy With The Namesake Ligand: Brett Fors
Jun08

The Guy With The Namesake Ligand: Brett Fors

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. BrettPhos was designed to facilitate palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reactions which form C-N bonds, in cases where the nitrogen comes from a primary amine. One challenge there was getting selective monoarylation- getting one aryl ring attached to the primary amine instead of two. BrettPhos pulls off monoarylation very well. But since the original report of BrettPhos, the Buchwald team has learned that the ligand is also effective in Suzuki coupling chemistry, trifluoromethylation reactions, and fluorinations. “It’s opened up a lot of different doors, but it wasn’t the plan at first,” Fors says. “There was a lot of luck involved there.” Fors says the ligand came into being during the middle of his first year in grad school. In addition to his coauthors on BrettPhos papers he had guidance from postdoctoral researcher David S. Surry, who today works as a technical advisor at New York law firm Ropes and Gray. New ligands get named at the Buchwald group meeting, Fors explains. Originally, the ligand was going to be named BPhos, but another molecule had already claimed that name. So the privilege fell to Fors. He’s not the only member of the group to have a ligand named for him, and as The Sceptical Chymist has reported, some of Buchwald’s cats also have ligands named for them. But Fors doesn’t call his ligand by its well-known name. “I actually can’t say it- it’s kind of weird,” he says. Hearing that reminded me of the informal etiquette I’ve picked up about named reactions in organic chemistry– that inventors of named reactions rarely use the proper names in their talks and papers, and are just about never the ones that coin those proper names in the first place. Fors helped develop another ligand during his time in the Buchwald group. That ligand will be published soon and will be named after another Buchwald feline, he says. Next up for Fors is a postdoctoral stint at the University...

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In Search Of Mizoroki And Heck
May18

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. 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...

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Named Reactions’ Biggest Fan
May17

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...

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