Monday, October 11, 2010

How did the national media do on the palladium Nobel?

It's been not quite a week since Suzuki, Heck and Negishi were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry. It's worth looking at the way that some media outlets covered the prize. For starters, here's the core science paragraph from the AP's story on the award:
The methods have been used to artificially produce cancer-killing substances first found in marine sponges, the academy said in its citation. While clinical testing has started, it's not yet clear whether they will turn out to be useful drugs.It's also being used to create new antibiotics that work on resistant bacteria and a number of commercially available drugs, including the anti-inflammatory Naproxen, prize committee member Claes Gustafsson said. "There have been calculations that no less than 25% of all chemical reactions in the pharmaceutical industry are actually based on these methods," Gustafsson said.

Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling has also been used by the electronics industry to make light-emitting diodes used in the production of extremely thin monitors, the academy said. The approach developed by the winners is widely used in the pharmaceutical industry, in research labs and in commercial production of substances like plastics, said Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and a colleague of Negishi's in Purdue's chemistry department.

"It's truly quite fundamental work," he said. By using the metal palladium as a catalyst to make carbon atoms bond to each other, the approach makes those bonds happen "very easily, very cleanly," he said. It requires fewer steps than previous methods and avoids having to clean up unwanted byproducts, he said.
Not a bad effort, really. It's all there: the ubiquity of Pd-catalyzed reactions, the different materials that can be made, the contributions to fundamental knowledge made by the professors and the improvements to reactions from a basic chemistry perspective. Joe Francisco is kind of a nice touch, too, in that he's both president of ACS and also Negishi's colleague at Purdue (do you think they have coffee on a regular basis? Yeah, I doubt it, too.)

The New York Times did the AP one better by getting a quote from Stephen Buchwald, who must be one of the leading practioners of palladium chemistry today. However, they fumbled the ball with the headline ("3 Share Nobel for Work on Synthesizing Molecules" -- nnnnope!) and they get an A for effort with the following "why Pd chemistry is better, historically" paragraph:
Drugs, plastics and many other industrial chemicals consist of large carbon-based molecules. However, getting one carbon atom to bind to another is often not an easy task. Nearly a century ago, a French chemist named Victor Grignard found that coupling a magnesium atom to a carbon atom pushed additional electrons to the carbon atom, making it easier to bond with another carbon atom. That method worked, but not always perfectly, sometimes producing too many unwanted byproducts.
Hurray for getting ol' Victor a mention, boo for making the latte-sippers in Manhattan think that organic chemists hadn't developed new methods of C-C bond formation between Grignard and Heck.

The trophy for bestest, fastest comprehension has to go to NPR's Joe Palca, who suffered through two live reads in the 7 AM and 8 AM hour (EDT) with NPR's anchor Craig Windham during their news updates, then had to go and have a conversation with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about palladium chemistry. (The comments there (scroll down) are pretty funny -- people are angry with Inskeep for being pretty jokey.) Major, major kudos to Palca for getting a lot right during that Morning Edition conversation:
PALCA: And first of all - so palladium is a catalyst in this particular case. What that means is, it doesn't actually go into the reaction. It doesn't come out at the end of it. But it speeds up the reaction. It makes the reaction do something that might not happen on its own. That's what catalysts are. And palladium happens to be an important catalyst...

...You know, nature has figured out a lot of really remarkable reactions. And the trick, as you say, is to put them into some kind of format where you can use them in a commercial process and make enough of it to use.

INSKEEP: And three chemists working independently have come up with this process and they win the Nobel Prize for chemistry.
Palca needs to be commended for getting a near-textbook definition of a catalyst into a normal conversation on the radio. Unfortunately, there's also the impression that palladium chemistry is something that happens in nature -- oops. Later, he also had to file a story with All Things Considered, where palladium plays the role of yenta:
PALCA: Basically, these three chemists used the metal palladium as a catalyst. Catalysts are a little like matchmakers: They bring atoms together that probably wouldn't get together on their own.

Mr. FRANCISCO: That actually makes it very easy to make new bonds and connect atoms and connect various groups to make new compounds.  
Palca was suffering through the reporter's version of Iron Chef -- today's secret ingredient is Palladium Cross-Coupling! And he has to attempt to translate it into English -- a tough job, even for an organic chemist.

All in all, a pretty good job by the dreaded mainstream media. Good luck next year, guys.


  1. I was just about to comment that the Francisco quote in the AP story was just from the ACS press release (which they got out pretty sharpish; but it isn't - so a few extra points to the AP.

    The quotes they got sounds a lot more human than the press release too!

  2. The Washington Post also plays up the matchmaking bit in kind of a cute cheesy way:

    "Carbon atoms are normally shy about pairing up. The winning approach was to use atoms of the metal palladium kind of like a singles bar, a place where pairs of carbon atoms are jammed together and encouraged to bond. This idea, called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling, was easier to do than previous methods."

  3. Yeah, I caught "Morning Edition" with Terry Gross make the dumb error before 8 AM and immediately called WHYY in Philadelphia. Got an answering machine (meaning they were not yet ready to admit their errors). Also immediately sent an e-mail titled "Gross Error by Terry Gross".

    Generally, the science coverage on NPR with Marty Moss-Cowane and Terry Gross is pretty dismal. For example, the reaction of Ms Moss-Cowane to interviewing an entomologist was basically "Yuk! Insects!"


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