Chemiotics: Introduction and allegro

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[Editor’s note – a new guest contributor, Retread, has joined the team, and should be familiar to some of our readers…]

Feb 13, 2008

“Everything in Chemistry turns blue or explodes”. Only a philosophy major in full hubristic cry could say that to his pre-med chemistry-major ex-roommate. There was some reality to it as the teacher of Chem 101, Dr Hubert N. Alyea, was really a small boy trapped in a professor suit, and usually blew something up in every lecture. Chemistry is still the Rodney Dangerfield of the sciences, important when the demand for taxol for breast cancer threatened to destroy every yew tree in sight, yet largely ignored by its progeny, biochemistry and molecular biology and the press.

Probably every nascent chemist suffers through things like this, but I got more than most, rooming with two philosophy majors as an undergraduate (one of whom was later a Rhodes). It definitely gives you both a thick skin and a more abstract cast of mind.

For who I am and my background go to ChemBark, scroll down the Categories section until you get to Rip Van Winkle open it up and start reading. This where I would have stayed, happily posting now and then and reading and responding to comments. However Paul has other fish to fry (probably his thesis) and ChemBark has developed a definite funereal cast in the 3 months since Paul’s last post. Anyway, Paul got me started and gave me a forum, encouragement and advice, so I owe him at least a good dinner. Thanks Paul.

If contact with budding philosophers didn’t make me somewhat reflective, then following the development of molecular biology from ’62 to the present with the eye and background of a Woodward grad student and medical practice as a neurologist from ’67 to ’00 certainly was enough to do so. This is why future posts will be on things like:

1. Is there really such a thing as causality in cellular biochemistry and physiology?

2. Is organic chemistry easy or hard?

2a. If it’s hard, is math harder?

3. Are there important chemical experiments which we can’t do because the earth isn’t big enough?

4. Is there really such a thing as control in chemical systems with feedback on every component (including the elements providing the feedback)?

5. Does the complexity of cellular chemistry and biochemistry raise questions about the adequacy of chance to bring it about?

That’s for the future. The next post (probably a very long one because of the background required) will be on a recent spectacular paper which, if replicated and generally applicable, will revolutionize the way we think of the control of gene transcription. Thomas Kuhn where are you when we need you?

Stay tuned


Stu Cantrill

Chief Editor, Nature Chemistry, Springer Nature