Missing out on discoveries

Scientists make discoveries all the time. Research findings differ in terms of significance, breadth, and downstream potential, but they do happen on a daily basis to everyone who is passionate about research. Any undergraduate student who is just getting into the “research groove” is a good example. The fact that the majority of his/her discoveries early on are not going to impress the community-at-large is not important. What is critical is to get into the habit of noticing interesting things, even if they are not earth-shattering. Upon training, one gets to appreciate the finer details, which inevitably leads to significant findings.

Now let’s consider someone who has just made a truly thought-provoking discovery. Here is a question that interests me: how often have others passed by that observation and did not even think twice about its significance? One can probably say that the predecessors might not have had the right tools, which would explain why the discovery had eluded them. I think this is very understandable. But then there is another possibility: people might have had all the tools in the world to make the discovery, yet they really did not care about it as their primary objective was in a totally different field. This could happen if we consider different areas that are driven by unrelated objectives. Take, for instance, polymer chemistry on one hand and synthetic methodology that targets small molecules on the other. Here is one of the cases from my “vault” of papers from 20 years ago. Below you see a link to the classic paper by Leigh and co-workers in Angewandte. It details the first crystallographic characterization of the smallest known catenane. If you consider the reaction that leads to the synthesis of this molecule, I am sure you will agree that things cannot get much simpler. In fact, the authors themselves state that the reaction involves “chromatography-free purification procedure simple enough to be performed in a well- equipped high school or undergraduate laboratory”. Now just think about the number of times polymer chemists studying amide materials made this catenane prior to 1995. There is substantial peer-reviewed and patent literature that documents formation of insoluble white powders during polycondensation. According to those reports, the precipitates are to be discarded upon work-up… I am sure there are many examples like this in other areas. It is indeed rather easy to pass by something exciting and not even notice it.



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