Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why the art and craft of chemistry cannot be captured on paper

Just in case you didn't know (I didn't):
Vanadium 2+, 3+, 4+ and 5+
Credit: Wikipedia
While searching for various uses of the term "chemical lore", I found a delightful passage in a book with the spellbinding title of "A manual for the chemical analysis of metals" by a Thomas R. Dulski. I'm going to present it out of order a little; if you want the whole thing, you can find it here. (Emphasis CJ's.)
Unfortunately, academic credentials are an inadequate preparation for this sort of career. The universities and colleges have de-emphasized analytical chemistry and,  in particular, classical analytical chemistry. And descriptive inorganic chemistry has largely been replaced by theory. While these changes may serve larger needs, they have hurt certain pragmatic concerns, among them, metals analysis. It is entirely possible that an individual may be awarded a Ph.D. in chemistry and have no idea of the colors of vanadium ion in aqueous solution. This observations is not meant to reflect on individual achievement, academic standards, or the quality of academic programs, but simply to illustrate that industry's perhaps parochial concerns are not being met. [This comes later than the next passage - CJ.]

Which leads us finally to the raison d'etre of this book. The last quarter of the twentieth century has witnessed a prodigious loss of classical analytical chemistry lore from the industrial workplace. I have used the word "lore" advisedly, because other aspects of this discipline - theory, good laboratory practices, and specific methods - can still be extracted from public, university and industrial libraries. But with the exception of a few long-out-of-print and somewhat dated texts, there is no sources from which to learn the thinking and manipulative skills that makes a classical analyst. "Lore" also implies a degree of art that must accompany the science -- the things that work even though their chemistry is poorly understood.* But the unfortunate fact is that most of the lore that has been lost as wet labs were closed and classical analysts were retired without replacement. As we have seen, these decisions have been short-sighted and potentially disastrous.

*The notion of lore is not new to science, nor is it antiscience. Rather, it precedes science. How many lives have been saved, for example, by drugs whose mode of action is only dimly understood?

An equally disturbing trend is the recent spread into industry laboratories of a dogma, widely held by lawyers and bureaucrats, that any human act, no matter how involved and complex, can be precisely specified in a written set of instructions. This credo is patently false, as anyone who reflects a moment on the works of man can plainly see. That is why there is only one Sistine Chapel ceiling, why all violins do not sound like a Stradivarius, and why open heart surgery is not offered as a correspondence school course. The simple fact is that no written protocol, even when the last "t" is crosses and the last "i" is dotted, can ever reduce the analyst to that hypothetical "pair of hands" -- a cheap, readily available, ultimately disposable "human resource," in the ultimate implication of that term. Well-written analytical procedures, such as ASTM standard methods are, of course, indispensable recipes, but one does not become a great chef, or even a good cook, by reading recipes.


  1. @CJ
    I love this. For many reasons. Especially the color of vanadium in solution. But mostly for the "pair of hands" quote!!

  2. The loss of traditional methods is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, I got a Ph.D. in organic chemistry without making derivatives, except as an undergrad in org chem lab.

  3. Brilliant article.

    Analysts who use EP/BP/USP methods -

    for non-analysts these are the methods used to test drugs in order to ensure that they meet requirements of dose and purity

    - will immediately understand what the author is saying. Which of course, doesn't bode well for the outsourcing of generics. (Pharmalot carries interesting stories about failed outsourcing).

    Further, as these skills (praxis?) are lost it becomes more and more difficult for people to project manage with any competence.

    And more and more difficult to get these skills back.

  4. We were fortunate to have a good inorganic lab instructor in school, and we actually had a lab where we interconverted V between oxidation states, diluted it, and took UV spectra. FANTASTIC theory-practical usage pedagogy.

    @Unstable Isotope: But you did actually do bench work, right? Maybe I'm old before my time, but I hope that anyone with an organic PhD has (minimally) set up, worked up, and purified reactions, and analyzed them by TLC / MS / NMR.

    I personally feel that folks who get their degrees "in silico" or in bio-organic miss out on the classic stuff.

  5. Terrific passages, I say! I mean replace the "analytical chemist" with the organic or medicinal chemist and then you get the picture of what is wrong with drug companies. I practiced these disciplines in a company of repute (20+ y) and I see that the modern graduates have none of the attributes mentioned by the author. A simple bond formation with catalysts won't cut it, even if the job opportunities for organic chemist improves.

  6. One of my favorite memories from undergrad research was using a vanadium bubbler for anaerobic work (protein dialysis, IIRC). Pretty pretty pretty. I think this is the original reference: Meites & Meites, Anal. Chem. 1948, DOI: 10.1021/ac60022a044

  7. @Jyllian
    OOOOOH I HEART vanadium bubblers!!

  8. So..knowing vanadium ion colors will somehow help give an unemployed inorganic chemist a job, or at least enable her to make new and useful products which she can extract a margin from? Maybe discover some new drugs?

    Passages like what Dulski writes seem to admonish a lack of knowledge of how many types of ship steering wheel there are and what colors they come in. Never mind that no one seems to have any idea where the ship is going, or that it might even be sinking. There are lots of pretty things that we can appreciate in chemistry, I am not arguing against that, but I think when we try to impart lore and mysticism, it's almost out of envy for those whose lore is valuable (like the heart surgeon).

    I feel that most "lore" is over valued. The passage provides the perfect example, if there is a difference between the sound of a Strad and a modern violin, no one has been able to detect it or define it precisely:

  9. Anonymous above is maybe full of anger in front of the world, or simply has an headache. Or anything else, I respect your opinion; but if you really think so it's your problem, not mine. How can you say that aesthetic experiences are USELESS in scientific discovery? Maybe Faraday, or Kekulé, or Kelvin himself, were cold computers only devoted to statistical analysis, or, rather, sensitive creatures able to listen to the music of nature? And, after all, even statistics includes a lot of charm for people able to look inside it!

    I'm quoting this page on our institute blog,, where I discuss the fundamental value of teaching the old systematic cation analysis: one of the purest and highest form of human intellect and art, not less than a Mozart allegretto or Michelangelo St. Peter's PietĂ . Useless, dangerous and confusing lore?

    Simple minded people may appreciate them for their immediate clarity, whereas experts are able to feel their incredible deepness and sophistication. It's a mistake to show them to freshmen without an adequate explanation, but an experienced student's mind can only be enlarged from looking at sudden colour change or at a precipitate texture.

    I feel sad for people which are not able to look at a Zen garden, or at a moss garden.

    Have we to forget it and only teach how to push a button on the last black-box model of computer-driven, hyphenated analytical device? All right, this is more useful to find a specialized job just tomorrow morning. But who will be able to conceive a novel analytical technique or to read the subtleties of a new drug's spectrum, the button-pusher or the open-minded scientist who has been taught to CONTEMPLATE the beauty of nature?

    The Stradivarius example is the proof of how wrong is your talk. If I listen to the same Verdi's Requiem directed by Giulini (or The Beatles' Abbey Road) from an old vinyl rolling on my old Thorens, or instead to the same from an aseptic CD, I agree that 90% of the difference I feel is subjective, related to other kinds of sensations but the air pressure waves (although 10% is REALLY different). But the WHOLE of physical vibrations and subjective emotions gives me good vibrations, can make me a richer one, and maybe elicits me to create something new in my everyday work. Even in the most trivial push-a-button job.

    Think positive, look at metal colours, you'll feel free, and a better chemist too.

  10. i think all chemists should now measure their worth with vanadium color knowledge.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20