Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Movies, Science and Nostalgia

In Woody Allen's Oscar-nominated film Midnight in Paris, protagonist Gil Pender, a successful but unfulfilled American screenwriter, is enamored with the city, its scenery, history and people. So great is his love for Paris that he wishes to uproot and move into tiny apartment, just as his literary heroes did in the 1920s.

Gil believes no time was finer than Paris in the 1920s, in fact, if he could, he would travel back in time. The film captures the romance of nostalgia, an idealized view of the past. It is a concept to which most dreamers can relate.

I daydream frequently, usually about flying, but after watching the movie (twice) I've been preoccupied with the plot. The subject matter spoke to me. I am a dreamer, and can relate to Gil. Nostalgia is alluring. In fact, I chose to earn a PhD in organic chemistry rather than continue in immunology and medicine partly because of a nostalgia factor.

Nostalgia and organic chemistry? How so?

Organic chemistry is about the chemistry of carbon, the element upon which life is based. Don't confuse it with the term "organic," it's bandied about in the context of food and lifestyle, but unrelated to the scientific discipline.

What drew me in to organic chemistry was a branch called total synthesis. It's best described as the synthesis of complicated molecules. It is both an art and a science. And it's challenging.

Total synthesis had it's heyday in the 1950s through the 1980s. And what a fascinating history it had! It was a time when clever chemists made incredibly complicated molecules, such as penicillin, Vitamin B, and quinine, using simple tools. It was a perfect union of skill, curiosity, creativity, patience, deduction, and determination. The work of these intrepid chemist at the forefront of organic chemistry helped make modern medicine what it is today.

Fast forward to 2012, and although total synthesis continues on, it does not have the romantic allure it once did. There are fewer practitioners of pure total synthesis. And former practitioners often combine their projects with biology- or nano-technology. It makes sense if you want funding, as the disciplines are intertwined, so it's a sensible approach.

As for my own path, I chose a graduate project in total synthesis not because it was easy, but because it was hard. It was my own personal mission to the moon. It was as far as I could get from immunology, but "do-able" nonetheless.

And there was the nostalgia.

I often thought of the organic chemists who came before me, and of the knowledge I gained from their efforts. The technology that came about from their efforts made my work incredibly efficient by their standards. What once took many chemists months to accomplish may now take one chemist a handful of days.

Would I want to be an organic chemist in the heyday of total synthesis? Probably. If only time travel were possible, right? But if it were, I'd buy lottery tickets.