Thursday, 31 January 2013

A bonding experience

There's a fun article* in Angewandte Chemie Int. Ed. 's 'early view' this week:

One Molecule, Two Atoms, Three Views, Four Bonds?
Sason Shaik, Henry S. Rzepa, and Roald Hoffmann

This paper is a bit of an oddity. While Angewandte does occasionally publish articles about the history of chemistry and so on, which adds a bit of colour relative to most journals, this is really quite unusual.

It discusses the background to a paper recently published in Nature Chemistry (h/t @stuartcantrill). The work is about the electronic structure of diatomic carbon, C2. Sounds dry, right?** It's the kind of thing every first-year chemistry undergrad studies at length, and I'm not sure I could read a paper about this without my eyes glazing over.

What makes it unusual is that it's written as a conversation between the three authors. I really enjoyed this for a number of reasons.

It's always interesting to see the people behind the science, and the personalities of the authors really shine through this article. They bicker with each other, they quote scripture, they ponder how blogs fit into the peer review process. You also start to get a sense of community as they discuss which papers to cite in their bibliography, agonising over dropping a reference to a friend's work.

You also start to see how science is actually done. The authors derive ideas from students and blogs; collaborations arise from unexpected places; and seemingly well-established textbook facts are revised. The discussion of how ideas about this subject have developed from the early 20th century conveys the place of this work in the grand scheme of things much better than your typical research article. As the authors put it, it's "a reflection that our science is alive".

Probably the best thing about it is that it really conveys why this is an interesting subject. As I said, bonding in homonuclear diatoms is not very close to my heart. This article really allows the authors to convey their fascination with the subject, and it's infectious.

This is something I'd like to see more of: 'outreach' within the scientific community. Not scientists communicating to the public, but specialists communicating across disciplines. Whether a somewhat contrived "trialogue" is the best way to do this or not, I don't know. But I'd definitely like to see more chemists telling us about their niche in creative and accessible ways***.

*unfortunately, as with most chemical literature, it's not open access.
**with apologies to the spectroscopy community.
***blogs are, of course, great for this - In the Pipeline is a prime example from medicinal chemistry.

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