Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"The human component"

Also in this week's C&EN, Bethany Halford talks with Jeff Seeman about his long article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry about the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, and how they came to be. I thought the ending comment was quite interesting: 
What do you hope readers will take away from the piece? 
The takeaway is how very dependent science is on the human component and how wonderfully interesting that is. The drive for uniformity in scientific publications tends to minimize understanding of the humanism of science. That drive is misplaced. Maybe scientific articles should be broader to include the human component as appropriate.
It would be really interesting to see what history would have been like, if we could run the counterfactuals. What would history have been like, if Woodward or Hoffmann had not had this flash of insight, and it had been someone else? What would it have been like if Woodward had taken ill that summer?

The "human component" is something that I don't think folks think about very often, and I think it is an important factor in how we prioritize problems to solve with science, and how they are solved.


  1. Francis Crick thought that if Jim Watson "was killed by a tennis ball" he would have not been able to come up with the complete and correct structure of DNA on his own, but thought that pieces of the correct structure would have come out here and there through time, and not with the big "splash" that it did. Maybe the same is true with other seminal discoveries.

    Reminder to me that "success" is all about time and context, and not to feel to bad if I never "make it" in the way that I think I should.

  2. @NMH: Don't forget the contributions of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins

    1. Well, Im just quoting Crick. I'm aware of their great contributions (Franklin: separating A vs B DNA forms; Wilkins (finer details of DNA structure via fiber diffraction post 1953).

  3. I blogged about Jeff's paper here.


    I think the inability of scientists to accurately convey the human component has always been one of the greatest failings in the popular history of science.

  4. If Woodward or Hoffman were not around, EJ would of received the credit he deserves!