Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Crafty chemistry

Twitter user @andyextance posted this quote earlier*:
'Biologists are better scientists than chemists, they form hypotheses' Dovichi
This is something I wonder about on and off: how does the average synthetic chemist fit into the idealised "scientific method" of hypothesis generation and testing?

Day to day, it often feels that organic chemistry is more like an art than a science. Reactions are often perfected by brute force - keep doing it, tweaking conditions, until it works! It's often not clear why a given set of conditions work on one compound but not another. This is not to say that there aren't good reasons, just that they may be subtle and difficult to predict or explain without careful study. In this way, we're perhaps more like craftsmen than scientists.

On the other hand, every reaction performed, every little alteration to the conditions, tests a hypothesis (or ought to). For example, one of the first papers out of the lab I work in uses a copious dose of TMS-Cl to help along a 1,4-conjugate addition. The addition of TMS-Cl was not arbitrary: it's a Lewis acid, and adding it tested the hypothesis that it would activate the enone to reaction.

Our hypotheses may often be less grand a little more off-the-cuff than those of a biologist, but I don't think it makes us inferior scientists - just messier.

*earlier = about five minutes ago; I am killing time while a Reaxys search completes! 

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