Tag Archives: E. J. Corey

Maryam Mirzakhani

“The universal scientific language is broken English.” So sayeth Don Voet 50+ years ago when we were graduate students. He should know, as his parents were smart enough to get the hell out of the Netherlands before WWII. I met them and they told me that there was some minor incident there involving Germans who promptly went bananas. They decided that this wasn’t the way a friendly country behaved and got out. Just about everyone two generations back in my family was an immigrant, so I heard a lot of heavily accented (if not broken) English growing up.

Which (at last) brings us to Maryam Mirzakhani, a person probably not familiar to chemists, but a brilliant mathematician who has just won the Fields Medal (the Nobel of mathematics). Born in Teheran and educated through college there, she came to Harvard for her PhD, and has remained here ever since and is presently a full prof. at Stanford.

Why she chose to stay here isn’t clear. The USA has picked up all sorts of brains from the various European upheavals and petty hatreds (see https://luysii.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/hitlers-gifts-and-russias-gift/). Given the present and past state of the middle East, I’ve always wondered if we’d scooped up any of the talent originating there. Of course, all chemists know of E. J. Corey, a Lebanese Christian, but he was born here 86 years ago. Elias Zerhouni former director of the NIH, was born in Algeria. That’s about all I know at this level of brilliance and achievement. I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed. Hopefully more such people are already here but haven’t established themselves as yet. This is possible, given that they come from a region without world class scientific institutions. Hitler singlehandedly destroyed the great German departments of Mathematics and Physics and the USA (and England) picked up the best of them.

Given the way things are going presently, the USA may shortly acquire a lot of Muslim brains from Europe. All it will take is a few random beheadings of Europeans in their home countries by the maniacs of ISIS and their ilk. Look what Europeans did to a people who did not physically threaten them during WWII. Lest you think this sort of behavior was a purely German aberration, try Googling Quisling and Marshal Petain. God knows what they’ll do when they are actually threatened. Remember, less than 20 years ago, the Europeans did nothing as Muslims were being slaughtered by Serbs in Kosovo.

Not to ignore the awful other side of the coin, the religious cleansing of the middle East of Christians by the larger Muslim community. The politically correct here have no love of Christianity. However, the continued passivity of American Christians is surprising. Whatever happened to “Onward Christian Soldiers” which seemed to be sung by all at least once a week in the grade school I attended 60+ years ago.

These are very scary times.


As if the job shortage for organic/medicinal chemists wasn’t bad enough

Will synthetic organic chemists be replaced by a machine? Today’s (7 August ’14) Nature (vol. 512 pp. 20 – 22) describes RoboChemist. As usual the job destruction is the fruit of the species being destroyed. Nothing new here — “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” — Lenin. “I would consider it entirely feasible to build a synthesis machine which could make any one of a billion defined small molecules on demand” says one organic chemist.

The design of the machine is already being studied, but with a rather paltry grant (1.2 million dollars). Even worse, for the thinking chemist, the choice of reactants and reactions to build the desired molecule will be made by the machine (given a knowledge base, and the algorithms that experienced chemists use, assuming they can be captured by a set of rules). E. J. Corey tried to do this automatically years ago with a program called LHASA (Logic and Heuristics Applied to Synthetic Analysis), but it never took off. Corey formalized what chemists had been doing all along — see https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/retrosynthetic-analysis-and-moliere/

Another attempt along these lines is Chematica, which recently has had some success. A problem with using the chemical literature, is that only the conditions for a successful reaction are published. A synthetic program needs to know what doesn’t work as much as it needs to know what does. This is an important problem in the medical/drug literature where only studies showing a positive effect are published. There’s a great chapter in “How Not to Be Wrong” concerning the “International Journal of Haruspicy” which publishes only statically significant results for predicting the future reading sheep entrails. They publish a lot of stuff because some 400 Haruspicists in different labs are busy performing multiple experiments, 5% of which reach statistical significance. Previously drug companies had to publish only successful clinical trials. Now they’ll be going into a database regardless of outcome.

Automated machinery for making polynucleotides and poly peptides already exists, but here the reactions are limited. Still, the problem of getting the same reaction to work over and over with different molecules of the same class (amino acids, nucleotides) has been solved.

The last sentence is the most chilling “And with a large workforce of graduate students to draw on, academic labs often have little incentive to automate.” Academics — the last Feudal system left standing.

However, telephone operators faced the same fate years ago, due to automatic switching machinery. Given the explosion of telephone volume 50 years ago, there came a point where every woman in the USA would have worked for the phone company to handle the volume.

A similar moment of terror occurred in my field (clinical neurology) years ago with the invention of computerized axial tomography (CAT scans). All our diagnostic and examination skills (based on detecting slight deviations from normal function) would be out the window, when the CAT scan showed what was structurally wrong with the brain. Diagnosis was possible because abnormalities in structure invariably occurred earlier than abnormalities in function. Didn’t happen. We’d get calls – we found this thing on the CAT scan. What does it mean?

Even this wonderful machine which can make any molecule you wish, will not tell you what cellular entity to attack, what the target does, and how attacking it will produce a therapeutically useful result.