Science and Elegance

When is something sufficiently elegant?

I can’t remember the first time I saw the word “elegant” used to describe a scientific (probably chemical)  process but it was probably one of the numerous inflection points at which I realized that I had finally pivoted in an inexhaustibly rewarding direction. Not that an undergraduate literature degree wasn’t fulfilling and beautiful on its own but science generally and chemistry in particular was all about discovering the way in which the universe behaved (and didn’t) and where notions, conjectures, hypotheses could transmogrify into fact. And not only single facts but clusters of facts. Not only clusters but polished jewels of truth that became more radiant and absolute with each refinement of an observation, a finding, an irrefutable nugget of wisdom gleaned from disciplined, diligent iteration through ever-expanding data sets!

Wherever I saw the word initially, it was not a rare event. I did a search on our word solely in (1) the American Chemical Society (25-year member) publication database in (2) publications that were free for me to browse and download in their entirety as many journal articles require purchase even if you area Society member. The search returned 389 articles that included the word “elegant” somewhere, either in the title, the abstract, or the body of the article. These articles ranged (for me) from the comprehensible (organic syntheses and improved synthetic techniques):

Macromolecules, 2015, 48 (3), pp 520–529
Publication Date (Web): January 27, 2015 (Article)
DOI: 10.1021/ma502460t

through more mathematically complex (various spectroscopic data analysis improvements):

J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2007, 129 (42), pp 12746–12755
Publication Date (Web): September 27, 2007 (Article)
DOI: 10.1021/ja0722574

to work I would have to study for days to understand (a lot of pure physical chemistry or computational chemistry work):

, , and J. Chem. Theory Comput., 2010, 6 (9), pp 2866–2871
Publication Date (Web): August 24, 2010 (Article)
DOI: 10.1021/ct1003077
Okay, so none of this probably seems in the least bit elegant to the general reader. In some cases, the word might be greeted with a bit of cynicism by the semi-professionally cynical self-assembling organism to which I belong (“elegant?!? Why that’s simply a slight improvement over the work my colleagues and I completed 20 years ago!” said the outraged professor while reading over the latest J. Phys. Chem. volume). Perhaps the word has fallen into over-use, like the word “awesome” among the lumpenproletariat, another group to which I belong, although not in the strict sense of the word.

I did a search in PubMed, an astonishingly useful and free database of all (or at least major) scientific and medical journal articles from around the world established and maintained by the National Institutes of Health (NIH; while searches are free (thank you, NIH), many articles can only be read by purchasing the individual article or heading down to your local university’s medical library, where it still might cost something). I did not filter for articles available for free; the search returned 4,059 items containing the word “elegant.” Here’s an example:

An elegant new test of corticospinal tract function during surgery: More work to be done.
Skinner S.
Clin Neurophysiol. 2016 Aug 24. pii: S1388-2457(16)30506-5.
doi: 10.1016/j.clinph.2016.08.014.
[Epub ahead of print] No abstract available.
PMID: 27590207

Sounds painful! If less painful than the previous procedure? Elegant!

I’m not really sure why the chemical compound cubane appeals to me so much. Maybe my underlying, subconscious interest is similar to whatever triggered Plato into thinking about Platonic solids (a very rich area of study in themselves), three-dimensional objects formed by “congruent regular polygonal faces” that he believed were the building blocks of the universe in some way (they aren’t; the building blocks are simpler and more complex than he imagined). I think the real reason is that cubane is an object conceived of as a chemist’s goal and was achieved through thinking about reagents, starting products, solvents, conditions, etc. that could be brought to bear on the problem.

The compound was first synthesized in 1964 by Philip Eaton and Thomas Cole. Initially, the synthesis scheme was as follows:


“What does this even mean?” you might say if you were not familiar with the beautiful molecular short-hand of organic chemistry. Well, in brief, it means that you start your reaction series with some 2-cyclopentenone and react it with N-bromosuccinimide in carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) under specific temperature and reaction time parameters in glass lab ware perfectly suited to such reactions, and you end up with the second compound in the series (on the right of the arrow in the upper left of the diagram). A whole bunch more chemistry is performed until, in the end and if you’ve been very diligent all the while, you end up with a compound with the molecular formula C8H8, probably with relatively poor yield, meaning that from starting material to cubane, you have lost various percents of the original mass of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen to by-products of varying shapes and descriptions (including some of the organic chemists least best friend – insoluble tar).

I would argue that elegance had been achieved in this first synthesis. Cubane had never been existed before 1963 (paper published in 1964) and had never been created by (1) the human mind (as an idea of something to be created) or (2) by human hands (as something to be fashioned out of dissimilar materials).

Elegance in science doesn’t stop with the first synthesis, though. It continues through the work of others who have seen that first instance of success and gotten busy attempting to make the same compound in fewer steps and with less of the starting material being diverted into by-products.

Within a couple of years, an improved synthesis was achieved by N.B. Chapman and colleagues, who whittled the initial synthetic route down to:



This version of the synthesis netted 25% cubane from the starting material – and did so in only six steps! Elegant x 1010.

And that is how elegance evolves in science. An initial idea is refined until it is really beautiful. It doesn’t make the first discovery less beautiful. It’s not really a contest. These are intellectual puzzles and scientists love to get busy solving them. Sometimes, there are ramifications to their investigations that lead to places we all probably wish had not been inevitable answers to the questions asked (think nuclear weapons, an inevitability presaged by Ernest Rutherford’s definition of the atom, and onward). Can that be helped? Not if answers are what we seek.

In the meantime, there is much beauty to be found in these processes. I know I’ve gotten a little rich with the chemistry, but just look at the pictures and appreciate that we have minds that (1) created this language, (2) can create laboratory conditions that lead from one chemical compound to another, and (3) are not satisfied with the initial answers they receive and want better solutions. That’s something that we can all understand, right?

While digging around in the literature, I came across a blog post by Dr. Anthony Melvin Crasto. His writing on cubane synthesis and other related matters made completion of this post easier than it would have been.

Author: makingsenseofcomplications

I have an academic background in literature and, separately, science. My career has been in industry in positions of increasing responsibility assisting in the drug development process - one of the most amazing intellectual pursuits of the human mind, among many other amazing intellectual pursuits. I am interested in films, philosophy, history, art, music, science (obviously), literature (also obviously), some video gaming, human behavior, and many other topics. I wish there was more time in every day because we have a world that is full of amazing phenomena that are considered too superficially by too many. Although my first and last names are fictional, I think I believe in all of the stuff you read here, although I retain the right in perpetuity of changing my thoughts about anything written herein.

2 thoughts on “Science and Elegance”

    1. Since I’m interested in a lot of stuff typically considered disparate, I tend to have friends that are interested in some of the topics and other friends for other topics. I am certainly a product of my parents’ interests in history, philosophy, politics, literature, art, and music but my brother and I have little in common. I do not consider myself a closet anything. I’ve been more surprised by this diverse outpouring than anyone could be and think it is the result of not doing much in this creative realm for most of the last 30 years. Instead, my release from corporate drudgery, even though an elevated sort, was playing music in a variety of original music bands (no one famous). Now, this seems to be the means of expression.
      It’s always interesting to meet people with shared interests. Kind regards, MSOC


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