Fall 2014

Foresight, Unpredictability & Chance in Chemistry & Cognate Subjects

John Meurig Thomas

In numerous branches of natural philosophy, the ways in which major, transformative advances are achieved are often cloaked in mystery, or arrived at through a fortunate concatenation of circumstances. This theme is pursued here with the aid of some examples from my own work on catalysis (the speeding up of the attainment of chemical equilibria), as well as from the work of others. The emergence of the maser (forerunner of the laser), the development of positron emission tomography, and the creation of blood-glucose sensors for use by those suffering from type 2 diabetes are among the innovations adumbrated here. In addition to describing the unpredictable nature of much scientific discovery, I also describe areas in which new chemical technology will be especially beneficial to society. I foresee that openstructure solid catalysts are likely to transform many of the ways in which chemicals, now manufactured in an environmentally harmful manner, will be produced in the future. Also outlined is the vital need to understand and exploit photocatalysts so as to harness solar energy. Finally, I touch upon the absolute value of chemistry in the quest for beauty and truth.

JOHN MEURIG THOMAS, a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy since 1990, is Honorary Professor in the Department of Materials Science at the University of Cambridge and Emeritus Professor at the Davy-Faraday Laboratory, London. Formerly, he was Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, and Head of the Department of Physical Chemistry and Master (Head) of Peterhouse, Cambridge. His publications include Principles and Practice of Heterogeneous Catalysis (with W. J. Thomas, 2014) and Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and Place (1991). He was knighted in 1991 for services to chemistry and the popularization of science.

Nearly fifty years ago, while watching Nobel laureate John Kendrew present a BBC program on the molecules of life, I was surprised to hear him remark that even expert scientists cannot usually predict what will happen in their fields more than three years in advance.1 How could it be, I wondered, that scientific giants like him could hold such a view? Do road maps used by scientists become invalid after a mere three years? As my knowledge of advances in chemistry and adjacent fields grew, however, I began to feel that Kendrew’s view is close to the truth. Before venturing into the past fortunes and future possibilities of chemistry, I will first demonstrate the veracity of Kendrew’s statement with the aid of three historical examples that underline the unpredictable nature of advances in science and technology.

In 1937, President Roosevelt asked a group of expert scientists, engineers, and businessmen for advice on what developments in science and technology could likely be expected in the future, in part so that he .  .  .


  • 1John Kendrew repeated this statement in his book Thread of Life: An Introduction to Molecular Biology (London: Bell and Hyman, 1966).

    Kendrew’s own success owed much to a concatenation of fortunate circumstances and development of new instruments. First, he declined Sir Lawrence Bragg’s offer to join him when Bragg became Director of the Royal Institution (RI) in London in 1953. He preferred to stay in Cambridge, but he agreed to visit the RI regularly as Honorary Reader there. This brought him in touch with David Chilton Phillips and Ulrich Wolfgang Arndt, who together had just produced the first-ever so-called linear automatic X-ray diffractometer, a major advance in instrumentation that enormously sped up the collection of X-ray data. But there were two other fortunate occurrences. The first took place in 1951 when Kendrew’s gifted research student, Hugh Huxley, was carrying out a series of laborious X-ray–related computations by hand in his Cambridge lodgings, which he shared with an Australian research student named J. M. Bennett. The latter quickly pointed out to Huxley and Kendrew that the unique Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), designed a few years earlier by Maurice Wilkes in Cambridge, could cope very easily with such calculations. Kendrew and Bennett soon wrote a definitive article (“The Computation of Fourier Syntheses with a Digital Electronic Calculating Machine”) that constituted a turning point in the processing of X-ray crystallographic data.

    The second fortunate circumstance was that Kendrew was part-time Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence in London–a position that enabled him to become acquainted with the most powerful computer in Britain, which he used to accelerate the interpretation of his raw data. With the ultra-rapid data collection of the linear X-ray diffractometer and an equally rapid means of processing data, Kendrew and colleagues were able to describe the first-ever three-dimensional model of a protein, myoglobin (the primary oxygen-carrying pigment of muscle tissue), in a 1958 issue of Nature. By now, the technique pioneered by Kendrew and Max Perutz (who solved the structure of hemoglobin a few years later) is used extensively worldwide. Someone hundred thousand three-dimensional structures are in the Protein Data Bank, which was created in the 1970s in the Brookhaven National Laboratory and then transferred to Rutgers University. It now contains information about the structures of tens of thousands of proteins and nucleic acids, and it is updated weekly.

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