Thursday, August 24, 2006


A few weeks ago, I narrated a current and hot controversy in the world of chemistry, in which a chemist named James La Clair who claims he has synthesized a complex molecule may not have synthesized what he said he has. The controversy is particularly gratifying for me the green computational chemist because computational methods were used to gain the crucial insight into the fracas, which led the way to the debunking of the synthesis. I have been following this controversy quite closely for as long as it has been hot. I wrote a post, spewed comments on other blogs, and discussed the brouhaha with friends and my advisor, and spotted one or two additional mistakes in the paper. How the paper went through the acid tests supposed to be devised by editors and referees remains a mystery to me. Either the tests were not acidic enough, or James La Clair and the referees were regular Sunday tennis partners.

A friend asked me today what I would say if La Clair turned out to be right after all. I said that I would be fascinated rather than galled. How many times in the history of science has a scientist who has been shunned, heavily criticised and lampooned, and ostracised, proved that he has been right? Jan Hendrik Schon and Hwang Woo-Suk certainly did not do it.

Now, I get to write about the controversy as well as wear it. An enthusiast from the University of California Irvine, the home of chemist Scott Rychnovsky who first shed doubt on the work, has come out with a T-shirt with the structure of the molecule on the front, with the Nature title 'The proof is in the product' below it. I have promptly ordered it, and chagrined chemists can see me in a few weeks wearing a T-shirt with a wrong structure printed on it. Now let's see how much fire hexacyclinol can stand when I plunge it into the washer bleach. Bring it on!

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This should be a nice memoir for me, and I will have a story to tell my grandchildren (or not)


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