Sunday, June 10, 2012

Blast from the Past: 1998 C&EN "Golden Age" Roundtable

Sadly, these "scientists" were not
included in the '98 roundtable
Credit: Universal Pictures
It's always risky business, peering into the future. But that doesn't stop anyone, even chemists, from trying!

Regular readers recall that Chemjobber and I recently teamed up to bring you two perspectives on the inaugural Organometallics roundtable (2012). Of course, this wasn't the first time wily ACS Editors tried this tactic: check out Chemistry's Golden Age, a panel organized to commemorate the 75th anniversary of C&EN by (not-quite-yet-Editor-in-Chief) Rudy Baum in 1998.

Moderated by blog mainstay Ron Breslow, the distinguished group included heavy hitters from a wide sweep of the field: Allen Bard, Richard Zare, Stephen Lippard, Koji Nakanishi, Robert Langer, and Nobelist Richard Smalley (RIP). (I especially enjoyed seeing the "young whipper-snappers" on the panel: Dan Nocera, Barbera Imperiali, and Jacqueline Barton.)

Since we're only about a decade away from affirming their predictions, I figured we'd peek back to see what yesteryear's chem blogs - no doubt on AOL, Prodigy, or GeoCities - might have covered.

#Chemjobs - Optimism reigned, as you might expect from the biotech boom of the late '90s.
Bard: "I think as long as chemists keep getting jobs, there will be chemistry long as we can turn out students who can find employment, we'll be okay." Yikes. Anyone else?
Barton: "I predict there will be fewer chemistry departments, but not fewer chemists." Well, don't mention that to CJ or Derek
Langer: "Some universities have gotten rid of departments, sure. But chemistry? If they're going to get to the point where they're going to get rid of chemistry, that just seems to me like a very long way to go." Reminds me of a funeral procession I saw recently, for a country closing many of its departments...

Energy - Smalley: "Twenty-five years from now the internal combustion engine will be found in museums, battery technology will finally have solved the problem of how we transport electrical power, and fuel cells will be practical devices...We may have solved the problem of cheap solar energy
I'll agree with the fuel cell argument, but I don't think we've advanced batteries or solar far enough (yet) to mothball our gas-guzzling autos...though Lippard correctly presages the rise of electric cars. Fossil fuels were "hot" topics: Stuart Rice and Bard both favored (pre-Incovenient Truth) investigation of alternate energy sources to combat global warming.
Young Danial [sic]
Nocera waxes
...artificial life.?
Source: C&EN

Origin of Life - Dan Nocera, he of water-splitting 'pacman' and 'hangman' catalysts, didn't mention anything about them, but instead placed his chips behind artificial membranes and building functional cells; Zare and Breslow both jumped right on board! Maybe they all hung out with Venter back in the day?

Times-are-a-changin' - The terms "bionic man," "Pentium chip," and "electronic publication" all sneak into the discussion.

Computers - "Unfettered optimism." This panel had grown, published, and worked with computers. They envisioned stunning things ahead.

"We can rebuild him,
using a 56K modem and
an Apple IIe!"
Credit: jackm's blog
Breslow: "Within 25 years, most reaction mechanism studies of the kind that we do now on simple reactions will be replaced by computational studies..." Yup.
Theodore Brown: "The combination of combinatorial chemistry and computational methods may lead us to the point where we actually have a library of catalysts designed to do specific things." Uh-huh. 
Smalley: "One of my favorite dreams is developing true spectroscopies for individual molecules..." Check.

Publishing - Funny, for computer-literate panelists sponsored by a magazine, group members remained stodgily entrenched in printed paper.
Bard (then Editor of JACS), referred to online papers: "I don't think it is going to be popular among chemists." Imperiali, who must have been plagued by pop-up ads: "The volume of material on the Internet is getting out of control. And the quality control has to go down because of the volume." 

Smalley, ever the visionary, really sees what's coming: "In 25 years, we will be getting our journals transmitted directly to a little thing that will feel like a book...I can't imagine waiting for a piece of paper to arrive in Texas before I read it." He would have loved Nooks, Kindles, and iPads.

Bold Move - From Allen Bard, wise words:
"If I have to make a prediction about the future, I would predict that five of the most important things that will be developed in the next 25 years have not been discussed at this table."
Truly a statement for all seasons. I've searched the text, and I find no mention of quantum dots, organocatalysis, MOFs, C-H activation, or even the reactions knocking on the Nobel Committee's door: palladium cross-coupling and olefin metathesis. I'll certainly keep this bon mot in mind, so I can conclude future roundtables this way...

Final Thought - You could easily criticize this roundtable for being strongly academia-leaning. The OM collection, though more well-rounded with Dow and DuPont reps, still lacks enough industry involvement. What do the folks in startups, "new energy," or science writers think about the future of our field?

*Readers, do you have recommendations for a different kind of panel?


  1. A panel on the future of total synthesis would be interesting.

    1. Oooh, that's neat...but who plays the industry role? Maybe a lead med-chemist?

  2. the funeral procession in the UK was a protest about the public funding body that covers most of chemistry in the UK (EPSRC), and the way it is going about prioritising its reduced budget on different scientific areas. some might say its just a load of organic chemists who are pissed off that their subject isn't considered that important anymore. maybe everyone got bored of 50 step synthesis of some crap from a sponge.

    in the UK, no chemistry departments that I'm aware of are closing and a few universities are opening or re-opening their chemistry departments. the subject is gaining in popularity at undergraduate level because many employers recognise the strong and widely-applicable attributes that chemistry graduates posses.

    1. Ummmm...

      Exeter, Swansea, Kings College?

    2. which all (shamefully) closed some time ago now. The story you linked to is from 2005.

      what I was saying is that currently, no departments that I am aware of are under threat of closure. Indeed several universities are opening or re-opening chemistry departments. Kings College chemistry department, which closed in 2003, was reopened last year.

      The funeral protest was a PR event for a campaign against the current policies of the EPSRC.

    3. @Anon: I understand your point, and I'm glad to hear about KC chemistry re-opening. I guess I was trying to point out that, based on "1998 logic," no one could have foreseen the coming closures - 2005 was still far off, relatively speaking. Thanks for the update!

    4. :) what I should have said, before I made my minor criticism, is that I liked the post :). I reckon plenty of UK chemists would swap 2012 for 1998 right now.

  3. Unstable IsotopeJune 11, 2012 8:48 AM

    Perhaps a roundtable on chemistry employment featuring people who are unemployed or underemployed? I'd love to hear more from their perspective.

  4. Oh, dear...this is sad. Especially the picture of the mock funeral, even though it's expired, as noted above

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