Holy Grails of Chemistry

by chemslug1 min read30th Sep 20202 comments

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This is a linkpost-slash-suggestion to check out https://www.chemistryworld.com/holy-grails/.

In 1995, the journal Accounts of Chemical Research published a series of articles called Holy Grails of Chemistry.  This series of articles represents an attempt by a group of chemists to make a partial list of Hamming questions for chemistry.  They chose eight research goals that they thought were worthy of the moniker of "Holy Grail", and asked key researchers in those fields to write essays about why they were important and the potential gains if the goal were realized.  Although not everyone was impressed with their choices, I think their selections have stood the test of time fairly well.  The selected topics were Manipulation of Matter at the Atomic and Molecular Levels, Room Temperature Superconductors, Unnatural Selection in Chemical Systems, Direct Observation of the Transition State, Controlling the Future of Matter, Artificial Photosynthesis, Biomimetic Chemistry and Artificial Enzymes, and Selective Intermolecular Carbon-Hydrogen Bond Activation

In September 2020, Chemistry World, the member magazine of the Royal Society for Chemistry, took a look at these "Holy Grails" 25 years later.  Most have seen significant progress and we seem to be on the cusp of realizing the original aspirations of a couple.

I think the LessWrong audience might enjoy both the original articles as well as the follow-ups because of the community's focus on intellectual progress and choosing important problems.  Plus, there's just some incredibly cool science summarized in the follow-up pieces.  For instance, did you know that some hydride materials are superconductive up to 260 K if you subject them to crazy high pressures?  Or that you can use directed evolution to expand the kinds of chemistry enzymes can catalyze?  Or that we're getting pretty good at functionalizing particular C-H bonds in complex organic molecules?

You can find the Chemistry World series starting from the splash page here.  I would have come up with a somewhat different list of "most important topics in chemistry" than the original authors did, but that's no surprise in a field as big and varied as chemistry is.  I think the Chemistry World team did a good job of creating accessible summaries of the chemistry community's ongoing quests for these "Holy Grails".

Note: the Acc. Chem. Res. articles are paywalled but the Chemistry World articles are not.

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I haven't looked at the links, but making problem lists like this seems really cool. I'm glad they tried it, and then followed up. 

I'm curious whether you know anything about why they tried it?

Hamming's original lecture talks about how most scientists he had lunch with sort of flinched away from their field's Hamming problems. He asked why they weren't working on them. It's implied that the conversation usually didn't go down very well, and the next day he had to eat lunch with someone else. 

Why were things different for the Accounts of Chemical Research people? Unusual amounts of curiosity, courage, accident, or something else?

I don't have any inside information about what exactly prompted the publication of these pieces, but I don't think it's unusual for practicing scientists to have some idea of what's possible if things go very, very right with their research.  They're often wrong, of course, and important discoveries are often important precisely because of unforeseen ramifications.  The Acc. Chem. Res. papers are just speculations about potentially awesome destinations for existing lines of research.

I think that the resistance to Hamming's line of questioning came about because (a) the criticism was coming from an outsider, and (b) it's kind of a bait-and-switch to ask someone what the most important problem in their field is and then laugh at them when they don't immediately say "the thing I'm working on right now".   I'd be ticked off if someone did that to me, especially if I didn't know them well beforehand.