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A really bad year for chemistry and chemists

Tuesday, November 1, 2016 7:46
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The shocks just keep on coming. Monday brought news of University of Illinois computational chemist Klaus Schulten’s demise. Schulten was a student of Martin Karplus who made great strides in using molecular dynamics to simulate the behavior of not just single proteins but giant protein assemblies like viruses. He contributed to both the science and the technology, popularizing parallel MD calculations along with their impact on key biological systems.

What’s troubling is that news of Schulten’s passing comes on the heels of similar bad news about two other chemistry and biology leaders – Jack Roberts and Susan Lindquist…and that’s just in the last two days.

And these aren’t even the first world-class scientists in the field to pass into the great beyond this year. There’s also Harry Kroto, Ahmed Zewail and Roger Tsien, all Nobel Laureates. As far as the passing of great chemists into history goes, this has been as bad a year as any that I at least can remember.

If I believed in an all-powerful deity, I would probably think that some malevolent deity who failed high school chemistry and has held a grudge against all things chemical since is tampering with the lifelines of chemistry’s leading practitioners. The more mundane but still depressing explanation is that this unfortunate set of coincidences is just that, a bad set of coincidences compounded with the raw fact of people dying at the end of a natural life span.

The one thing we can say is that all these giants have left their indelible footprints on their fields. These are fields that span a vast landscape: physical and organic chemistry, spectroscopy, chemical biology, cancer and neurodegenerative disease research, materials science. The fact that even such a small sampling of chemists corresponds to such a large sampling of scientific topics is a testament both to their intellectual prowess and the versatility of chemistry. 

They have all left us a lot of work to do.


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