The Brick Wall of Science (with Aerogel!)

In contrast to the joy of crystallization,  there is always that sinking feeling when you can’t get something to work.

In light of recent events, chemists are becoming much more skeptical about the veracity of the results they see in print, and to a large extent, that’s a good thing.  In some cases, however, this can be problematic as well.  For example, recently I’ve been trying to carry out what should be a simple, routine reaction.  I won’t give any details, but the reaction is the very definition of “textbook.”  I can’t get it to work worth a damn.  I’ve tried everything I can think of, I’m following literature procedures to the T, but it just won’t work out the way it’s reported.

Here’s the real dilemma: this reaction was reported to work, but I can’t reproduce the results.  I even know other people who have had trouble reproducing these results.  So what is the problem?  I have to wonder whether it’s a failing in my abilities as a chemist, but at the same time, at what point do you say “These reported results can’t be right.”  I’m definitely not to that point with my chemistry, but if I were working with a reaction that wasn’t so firmly established I would have to seriously consider the possibility that the reported results were false.

So am I jumping the gun on this?  Did I just miss something in those papers I read?  I feel like I may be more likely to accuse falsification just because there have been some high profile reports of such things.

Then try to think of yourself on the other end of things.  Any chemistry that I publish will be true to the best of my knowledge, but what if someone questions my results?  I know I have evidence to back it up, but how do you tell someone that their inability to reproduce my results must be some fault on their end.  Worse yet, what if I made an honest mistake and misidentified something?  Is that forgivable, or would my carelessness mar all of my accomplishments.  These are serious issues and I think that some of this may have gotten lost in the fray of competing accusations.

So what am I to do, with a textbook reaction that doesn’t behave like it should?  How long do I pound my head in to the brick wall of science before I give up on it?  And perhaps a more ominous concern is what happens when someone asks why I didn’t just use this obvious textbook reaction instead of my obviously circuitous work around!!

By August 23, 2006 0 comments Uncategorized


You ever have one of those days where you do something in lab that’s totally routine, but then you encounter something that just makes you happy to be a chemist?  I had one of those today.  Most of the compounds I deal with are oils or liquids, but today I made a compound that crystallized after concentrating the organic layer after the reaction.  Nice white crystals with no purification at all.  That freakin’ rules.

I kinda want to try to sublime it now, because sublimation is easily the best part of chemistry.

By August 16, 2006 0 comments synthetic chemistry

Blogging: An Outlet for the New Generation of Chemists.

Maybe I am selling the whole world short, but this blog thing is just exploding in the chemistry community. I’m a pretty avid blog reader, especially the chemistry ones, but that has been a recent development. I have to credit Dylan over at Tenderbutton for that. Dylan has approached his blog in a way that fellow grad students can really appreciate: the day-to-day difficulties in the lab, fascinating little observations, and a healthy shot of irreverant criticism of the chemical literature. This though process is nothing new, grad students have these conversations amongst themselves all the time, but Dylan seems to have made it okay for everyone to write these things on the internet. This is really great because you get to see what other people are thinking about the issues that are out there and see a little slice of how other people perceive chemistry. I like to read a bunch of the chemistry blogs just to get a feel for how new ideas are being accepted.

The blog atmosphere is very different from some of the other chemistry focused sites out there. Most of them are informational (e.g. and some are for teaching (e.g. Chemical Forums), which is all fine and good, but those sites don’t leave a lot of room for discussion with real experts (or aspiring experts) in the field. The key is that these blogs allow chemists to see how to think about problems (and solutions) in chemistry in a very critical way. It’s easy to pick up the latest issue of a journal and talk about how great some newly discovered reaction is, but it is perhaps more important to be able to identify the short comings of that chemistry because in doing so you will identify the next set of problems. Perhaps we chemists should look at these blogs as a way to better our own ability to look at the way we do science so that we can do it better!

Vivo el blogosphere de la química!

By August 14, 2006 0 comments Uncategorized

ChemBlogs is live to the internet public

First, thanks to all the beta testers that helped trouble shoot the ChemBlogs software package for me. So if you haven’t already registered an account at go do it and blog away. We already have over 30 blogs there and more are always welcome. If you encounter a bug post it in the ChemBlogs forum. I’ll start writing useful tips at my blog there


Sorry webqc, I decided to go solo. Sad

By August 14, 2006 0 comments chem 2.0