Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Eternal Struggles

I managed to wrap up some experiments for a paper (sent back the revised version just the other day), While doing all of that over the last two weeks and change, I was stimulated to contemplate some long-standing issues off and on.  I figured they might be of mild interest.

The first - I'd like insight and numbers.

There's a fairly famous quote attributed to the late theoretical chemist Charles Coulson on obtaining insight versus just numbers.  My question - why can't we have both?  My  purely anecdotal experiences have suggested that chemists tend to be really ambivalent on this topic - on the one hand, we tend to be annoyed if we can't intuit everything from just a glance at the periodic table and a smattering of semiclassical physics (as I once vaguely alluded to recently), but on the other hand, we're quite quick to complain about things not being rigorous and how it's all just a model.  Other fields tend to be a bit less gripey about this sort of thing in my experience - they've either learned to deal with the indeterminacy or uncertainty, and/or come to grips with the ups and downs of toy models. 

The second - the perpetual translation that goes on in the head of anyone working at an interface.

A long time ago, I had gotten myself into a little back-and-forth because, in short, I was reading with my physics filter on when I should have been reading it with my chemistry filter.  This is hardly new, and it's certainly happened since then, for that matter.  It usually manifests in turns of phrase or underlying assumptions that - for example - aren't anything unusual in one setting but might be a bit odd or worse in another setting.  I'm not sure how to resolve this recurring situation, except to try and be more careful.   Suggestions would be welcomed.     

The third - is biochemistry really just "applied organic chemistry," as I was once informed as an undergraduate and have heard off and on since then?

Please.  One is only fooling the innocent undergraduates with that pompous bit of nonsense.  There's a reason it's called biochemistry - one needs to appreciate and understand how to navigate through the entirety of chemistry.  Once one casts aside the self-completing fantasies of some deluded chemists, it's rather straightforward to see interesting chemistry of all stripes manifest in biological systems.  There are incredible metalloenzymes that can fix nitrogen (nitrogenase), we have a chromophore bound to a membrane protein which experiences a photochemically induced conformational change (bacteriorhodopsin), and of course there's all of the multiple feedback and regulatory pathways that all seem to tie into one another in ever-increasingly labyrinthe but beautiful ways that seem to be well-attacked (to some extent, at least) with the mathematical formalisms of physical chemistry.  And all of that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Read more!