Category Archives: Lab life

Publication of the week, number 105, 27th November 2015

This week’s ASAP took me back to my undergrad days! It was published by Seeman and deals with the history of a famous milestone in organic chemistry, the Woodward-Hoffmann rules.

Seeman had unlimited access to Hoffmann’s documents, lab note books, scribbles as well as personal interviews. The material from the other side, Harvard, was the Woodward archives. He attempts to distill from all this material “the nature of the collaboration between Woodward and Hoffmann“.

When I read this I came away with the impression that the analysis is somewhat one-sided, biased towards the Hoffmann contribution. Of course this is a consequence of history and time. Especially as Hoffmann rarely dated his lab note book entries and time dilutes the memory of past events. This does not make Seeman’s paper any the less interesting  and he does include correspondence between Woodward and other eminent organic chemists.

He suggests that Hoffmann did not appreciate the importance of the work which he started. But Hoffmann was investigating  many things. I think the gaps in the notebooks are due to these other things but I would bet that the formulation of the calculation methods was still very much in his mind and it is obvious that new results in other areas were also applied to this new work. Seeman also attempts to elucidate the relationship between these two chemists. I don’t think that this aspect comes through in the review. But, that said, trying to assess such an abstract thing as a relationship is very difficult especially when one of the partners is no longer alive.

One thing brought back many memories, searching through Chemical Abstracts (without SciFinder). As Hoffmann, I had to do this and it was a painful time consuming process causing immense strain on the eyes, arm muscles and brain. But is SciFinder any better in these areas?

As for the rules themselves. I remember initially struggling with the concept and I actually purchased a book by Entwistle. This is only 60 pages long and full of diagrams and picked out the main points of the approach. Finally the whole thing clicked and I managed to understand what is going on. I still have the book with its faded pages still legible, with glasses.

So this ASAP is actually very interesting and worth a read, if not for the content but the thoughts behind. Something light for the weekend.

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