Great Research is Dull

This post is contributed by Brandon Findlay, and the author of the blog “Chemtips

The best talks, the ones that I go to conferences hoping to see, are the least exciting.  They aren’t sleep inducing, far from it.  But the best talks don’t usually have a lot of flair.  There’s no brilliance at play, and nothing indicates that what I’m hearing will one day change the world.  Instead, I think, “Why doesn’t everyone do things like that?”

Strange as it may sound, such moments are (for me) what make great research stand out.  Great research is the end product of an idea so simple and straightforward that doing things any other way is nonsensical.  If you’re curious about understanding the interplay between drugs and antibiotic resistance, of course you should go isolate millennia old permafrost bacteria.  If you want to discover new reactions, semi-randomly mixing reagents is the way to go.  And if you want to make macrocycles, just dream up a reaction that holds the two ends together with electrostatic charge.  After the fact each idea makes perfect sense, and I wind up feeling an amnesiac; remembering things I didn’t even know I’d forgotten.

Good research (and a lot of flawed work), draws more press, and generally leads to a faint sense of awe.  Almost all of the upper tier total synthesis work is good research, as every sufficiently complicated structure stands out like an Everest on the horizon [1].  “Conquering” each structure grabs the headlines and extends the limits of what’s possible, usually leading to a new technique or two along the way.  But at the end of the day, what have we learned?   Dozens of small discoveries are made while climbing, but they are rarely broadly applicable.  From the top the climbers can see far, but their only concern is even greater mountains on the horizon.  The only follow-up to their work is to reach the same summit again, better [2].

It’s easy for a field to fall into a groove, using the same approach again and again, until every mountain—no matter how small—has at least one flag waving at the top.  Great research shifts your perspective, revealing new worlds and new peaks.  Once the blinders have been removed it’s hard not to look back and think, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

[1] Why climb Everest?  “Because it’s there.

[2] Higher yield, fewer steps, green, single pot, atom economy, protecting group free.  All different ways of seeking out some synthetic Platonic ideal [3].

[3] Disclaimer: Total synthesis requires dedication, intelligence, and perhaps a touch of madness.  I have nothing but respect for those who do it so well.



  1. I’m wondering if retrosynthesis is this kind of “great” research – it is as common sense as people would solve a maze from its exit. Had no one ever thought about that back in the days before great EJ pointed it out?

  2. You are implying, at least as I understand it, that great research will be the research from the emerging fields more so than it will be from the older and more classical fields. I agree in this aspects, as an organic chemist I am terribly tired of hearing about natural product synthesis, and new reactions. However I am inspired by supramolecular and molecular design projects. More to the point, I am incredibly drawn to MOF work, as it is the culmination of three fields of chemistry, and being a wee baby in the world of chemistry disciplines seems to hold nothing but exciting advances and infinite creativity.

  3. I think of great research as work that expands our skillset, and allows us to do more. EJ Corey wasn’t the first to disconnect bonds and see the traces of leftover reactions (a lot of people no doubt did the same, if only subconsciously). Retrosynthesis is great research because it allows even a 1st year graduate student to plan complex syntheses, by giving them a ready-made set of guidelines to follow.

    Emerging fields are of course going to be fertile ground for great research, just because there’s so much left to explore. On the other hand, organic synthesis was not a new field when “The Logic of Chemical Synthesis” came out, or in 1990 when Corey was awarded the Nobel prize.

  4. Pingback: Chemistry Blog » Blog Archive » [Guest Post] Best of the Annals of Improbable Research

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