Monday, August 20, 2012

“Black Swan Events” in Organic Synthesis

William A. Nugent

In this Angewandte essay, William Nugent discusses ten examples in organic chemistry that were thought to be "conventional wisdom" 35 years ago, but have now been proved incorrect through experimental research. Some examples brought up include:
  • "Gold compounds are simply too unreactive to be useful as homogeneous catalysts"
  • "Palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling is suitable for formation of C-C bonds but not for C-N bonds"
  • "Olefin metathesis is an ill-defined reaction of olefinic hydrocarbons and unlikely to find use in organic synthesis"
The following is one of his reflections:
"The third and final point I will direct toward younger scientists. On a couple of occasions, I have encountered chemists who feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the current chemical literature. They report that they approach the literature in a reactive fashion—they utilize search engines like SciFinder or Beilstein to address specific research problems to the exclusion of browsing current journals. I strongly disagree with this approach. It is by systematically reading current publications that we become aware of deficiencies in existing technologies, innovative solutions, research trends, and results from entirely different fields that could potentially impact our own interests. But I hope it is evident from the examples we have discussed that reading the literature over the last 40 years has been something more. It has, quite frankly, been an adventure. In such history one finds overarching themes, tales of dogged persistence, brilliant flashes of insight, and remarkable plot twists. One can only imagine what extraordinary developments those of you currently beginning your careers in chemistry will witness in the next 35 or 40 years. In this regard, I envy you."

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