Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Chemical 'Real Book'

Buying a Real Book is complicated.

For the uninitiated, the Real Book provides jazz charts, including chord progressions, lyrics, and harmonies for gigging musicians playing in bars and clubs. It's something of a badge of honor, like a construction worker's tool belt or the chemist's model kit and beat up copy of March's 3rd Edition.

It's also technically illegal.

Hand-drawn charts from The Real Book
See, the Real Book cobbles together scraps of published music, overheard solos, and lyrics cribbed from cocktail napkins, and publishes them on fuzzy photocopied pages. No copyright information, official publisher, or complex index. Just 400 pages of non-ASCAP-approved* scribbles. But, funny thing: everyone has one, because they're so darn useful. If an audience member suddenly shouts out "play God Bless the Child" or "Mood Indigo," you can just flip to the right page (136 and 242, if you're curious), and go.

I'm amused how often organic chemistry and jazz dovetail together. Something about the overlap between formalized education - scales and chords for the musician, periodic trends and name reactions for the chemist - and free, artistic improvisation jives with both fields. Both have subdivisions, leading lights, and roguish subcultures.

So, I have to ask: Where's the O-Chem Real Book?

You could say that PiHKAL, the "how-to" book scribed by the Shulgins, might be our version. But even that tome has a publisher, typeface, and a copyright! I'm curious about even more clandestine collections of notes, like a longer version of those clipped-together, ragged notebook pages of hand-drawn structures everyone prepares before final exams. Does anyone still have those, and do you use them to inform your lab work? Do any chemistry professors prepare photocopied books that you collect from University Press just before the semester starts?

Real Book Cover
Even if these books exist, acquiring them might be less fun than the rite of passage required to buy my Real Book.* Ten years ago, I walked into a back-alley, nondescript music store. I asked the clerk fairly routine questions, then glanced towards the bound anthologies on the wall. He told me he didn't know, and motioned towards the end of the counter. Money, that I didn't know if I'd see again, went onto the counter. The clerk nodded, and told me to come back in 20 minutes. A paper bag awaited me near the back of the store.

*Coda: Although I own a copy of the book, I don't condone theft, especially of intellectual property. Songs count. When I need actual sheet music for a group or performance, I always purchase it directly from the composer or ASCAP-approved music shop.


  1. Makes me think of the Snape's copy of Advanced Potion Making.

  2. Some of my preps are from a ratty collection of stapled-together emails that my PI got from his tenure tour...I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few synthetic groups have some form of this impromptu Real Book of their own

  3. You know what's becoming the "Real Book" for graduate students? All those PDFs of notes from advanced organic classes and such that wander around the internet. I got the PDF of Boger's notes from a labmate of mine; felt kinda weird.

    Now Boger's notes come with a little copyright warning, I believe.

    1. Yeah, I know how you feel. I save certain Baran group meeting notes, the occasional Evans Adv Orgo handout, and I have Hoveyda's cooling baths and "Not Voodoo" bookmarked.

    2. So I've never asked you this -- is the cooling baths handout like ~80% useless? Who's got 2L of cyclohexane to sacrifice to the cause?

    3. Funny you mention - I had a (very senior) lab mate who swore by cyclohexane as the ideal solvent for just about everything. But I also empathize; I usually have 4 regimes of cooling: -78, -40, -20, and 0. If it goes at a weird temp, say -55, I take my -78 and warm it with cosolvents.

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