Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Are chemists designers?

Not according to a provocative article by Martin Jansen and Christian Schön in Angewandte Chemie. They argue that 'design' in the strict sense doesn't come into the process of making molecules, because the freedom of chemists is so severely constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry. Whereas a true designer shapes and combines materials plastically to make forms and structures that would never have otherwise existed, chemists are simply exploring predefined minima in the energy landscape that determines the stable configurations of atoms. Admittedly, they say, this is a big space (the notion of 'chemical space' has recently become a hot topic in drug discovery) – but nonetheless all possible molecules are in principle predetermined, and their structures cannot be varied arbitrarily. This discreteness and topological fixity of chemical space means (they say) that "the possibility for 'design' is available only if the desired function can be realized by a structure with essentially macroscopic dimensions." You can design a teapot, but not a molecule.

Chemists won't like this, because they (rightly) pride themselves in their creativity and often liken their crafting of molecules to a kind of art form. Having spoken in two books and many articles about molecular and materials design, I might be expected to share that response. And in fact I do, though I think that Jansen and Schön's article is extremely and usefully stimulating and makes some very pertinent points. I suppose that the most immediate and, I think, telling objection to their thesis is that the permutations of chemical space are so vast that it really doesn't matter much that they are preordained and discrete. One estimate gives the number of small organic molecules alone as 10^60, which is more than we could hope to explore (at today's rate of discovery/synthesis) in a billion years.

Given this immense choice, chemists must necessarily use their knowledge, intuition and personal preferences to guide them towards molecules worth making – whether that is just for the fun of it or because the products will fulfil a specific function. Designers do the same – they generally look for function and try to achieve it with a certain degree of elegance. The art of making a functional molecule is generally not a matter of looking for a complete molecular structure that does the job; it usually employs a kind of modular reasoning, considering how each different part of the structure must be shaped to play its respective role. We need a binding group here, a spacer group there, a hydrophilic substituent for solubility, and so on. That seems a lot like design to me.

Moreover, while it's true that one can't in general alter the length or angle of a bond arbitrarily, one can certainly establish principles that enable a more or less systematic variation of such quantities. For example, Roald Hoffmann and his colleagues have recently considered how one might compress carbon-carbon bonds in cage structures, and have demonstrated (in theory) an ability to do this over a wide range of lengths (see the article here). The intellectual process here surely resembles that of 'design' rather than merely 'searching' for stable states.

Jansen and Schön imply that true design must include an aesthetic element. That is certainly a dimension open to chemists, who regularly make molecules simply because they consider them beautiful. Now, this is a slippery concept – Joachim Schummer has pointed out that chemists have an archaic notion of beauty, defined along Platonic lines and thus based on issues of symmetry and regularity. (In fact, Platonists did not regard symmetry as aesthetically beautiful – rather, they felt that order and symmetry defined what beauty meant.) I have sometimes been frustrated myself that chemists' view of what 'art' entails so often falls back on this equating of 'artistic' with 'beautiful' and 'symmetric', thus isolating themselves from any real engagement with contemporary ideas about art. Nonetheless, chemists clearly do possess a kind of aesthetic in making molecules – and they make real choices accordingly, which can hardly be stripped of any sense of design just because they are discrete.

Jansen and Schön suggest that it would be unwise to regard this as merely a semantic matter, allowing chemists their own definition of 'design' even if technically it is not the same as what designers do. I'd agree with that in principle – it does matter what words mean, and all too often scientists co-opt and then distort them for their own purposes (and are obviously not alone in that). But I don't see that the meaning of 'design' actually has such rigid boundaries that it will be deformed beyond recognition if we apply it to the business of making molecules. Keep designing, chemists.


Philip Ball said...

We welcome very much the thoughtful comments by Philip Ball on our essay, and appreciate in particular the correct and concise summary of our ideas as given in his introductory part. Also, most of the issues he subsequently raises were already addressed in our essay. Thus, we are wondering why Philip Ball is reluctant in drawing the rather obvious conclusions from applying the energy landscape concept to compositions and structures of chemical compounds. Perhaps this might be due to some misinterpretations of our statements, which we would like to dispel.

(1) We have made the point, and agree, that chemists are right to be proud of their intellectual input and of their great synthetic achievements. (Don’t forget the main focus of one of the authors, M. J., is synthetic solid state chemistry!).

(2) We have addressed the “combinatorial explosion” as an archetypical feature of chemistry. In spite of the “enumerably infinite” number of possible compounds, the landscape of compounds is discrete in nature. Irrespective of the scientists attitude in exploring it, e. g. following intuition, personal preferences, even speculation or employing more rational tools like computational chemistry, the action taken by a chemist always contributes a discovery and not a creation, and is lacking essential attributes of “design”, even in its most general sence. We do not question the high degree of control achieved in some subdisciplines of chemistry by purposefully functionalizing molecules, but we would like to emphasize that also such educts or intermediary molecules correspond to local minima and are thus both predefined and discrete.

(3) It is well documented (by experience) that the bond lengths among a given pair of atoms may vary substantially, depending on its chemical surrounding. However, this length is fixed for a specific position in a specific compound. This also holds true for extremely long or short bonds which cannot be varied either, and thus making such compounds by purpose again is not synthesis by “design”.

(4) We have mentioned that in its main meaning design also includes an aesthetic element. However, we have also pointed out that shaping and producing a certain object by design does not necessarily include such an element. We are quite aware that in selecting a molecule as a target for synthesis chemists are sometimes lead by aesthetic considerations. We agree, too, that in this respect chemists make real choices. But selecting or choosing out of a multitude of items is normally not associated with the term “design”.

Languages are living entities, and the meaning of a word may be subject to change and extension. From the way some chemists are using the term “design” one can easily see directly that their intention is not to change its meaning but to highlight and adorn their (often excellent) achievements. Admittedly, such kind of euphemistic use of words is very common in politics and in some media, however, chemists should be scientist first and foremost, and politicians or journalists at most as an afterthought or by cruel necessity.

We regard using the correct terminology as indispensable for avoiding a wrong understanding. Employing precise terms is easy, and costs nothing.

Keep discovering new marvel of nature, chemists!

M. Jansen
C. Schön

(Posted by Phil)

uhfdf said...

歐美a免費線上看,熊貓貼圖區,ec成人,聊天室080,aaa片免費看短片,dodo豆豆聊天室,一對一電話視訊聊天,自拍圖片集,走光露點,123456免費電影,本土自拍,美女裸體寫真,影片轉檔程式,成人視訊聊天,貼圖俱樂部,辣妹自拍影片,自拍電影免費下載,電話辣妹視訊,情色自拍貼圖,卡通做愛影片下載,日本辣妹自拍全裸,美女裸體模特兒,showlive影音聊天網,日本美女寫真,色情網,台灣自拍貼圖,情色貼圖貼片,百分百成人圖片 ,情色網站,a片網站,ukiss聊天室,卡通成人網,3級女星寫真,080 苗栗人聊天室,成人情色小說,免費成人片觀賞,

傑克論壇,維納斯成人用品,免費漫畫,內衣廣告美女,免費成人影城,a漫,國中女孩寫真自拍照片,ut男同志聊天室,女優,網友自拍,aa片免費看影片,玩美女人短片試看片,草莓論壇,kiss911貼圖片區,免費電影,免費成人,歐美 性感 美女 桌布,視訊交友高雄網,工藤靜香寫真集,金瓶梅免費影片,成人圖片 ,女明星裸體寫真,台灣處女貼圖貼片區,成人小遊戲,布蘭妮貼圖片區,美女視訊聊天,免費情色卡通短片,免費av18禁影片,小高聊天室,小老鼠論壇,免費a長片線上看,真愛love777聊天室,聊天ukiss,情色自拍貼圖,寵物女孩自拍網,免費a片下載,日本情色寫真,美女內衣秀,色情網,

liwo said...


女優王國,免費無碼a片,0800a片區,免費線上遊戲,無名正妹牆,成人圖片,寫真美女,av1688影音娛樂網,dodo豆豆聊天室,網拍模特兒,成人文學,免費試看a片,a片免費看,成人情色小說,美腿絲襪,影片下載,美女a片,人體寫真模特兒,熊貓成人貼,kiss情色,美女遊戲區,104 貼圖區,線上看,aaa片免費看影片,天堂情色,躺伯虎聊天室,洪爺情色網,kiss情色網,貼影區,雄貓貼圖,080苗栗人聊天室,都都成人站,尋夢園聊天室,a片線上觀看,無碼影片,情慾自拍,免費成人片,影音城論壇,情色成人,最新免費線上遊戲,a383影音城,美腿,色情寫真,xxx383成人視訊,視訊交友90739,av女優影片,