Those Perfect Moments in Science

By Michael Edmonds 01/06/2013 2

A career in science can have its’ challenges – long hours, funding issues, keeping up with the latest research. So often we hear about these challenges, that non-scientists may wonder why on earth anyone would choose a scientific career.

A recent post by Brendan Moyle, “It’s a Publication” reminded me of one of those perfect moments in science – having ones’ work accepted for publication. Having spent long hours carrying out the research, more long hours writing and rewriting the research paper, then guiding it through the peer review process, to get that letter (or email) of acceptance has always been for me one of those perfect moments.

There are other perfect moments in science, which no doubt differ from field to field. Most of my research has been in the area of synthetic organic chemistry, creating new molecules by selecting a series of different reactions to assemble the molecule section by section from available starting materials. It is sometimes described as being as much an art as a science, because although we have thousands of molecules we can use as starting materials, and thousands of reagents which can be used to alter them, the outcome of reacting different reagents with different starting materials (or intermediate compounds) is not always obvious or as might have been expected.

Within such a challenging field there are several “perfect moments” for me. The ultimate would be holding a vial containing a compound that has never existed before. A compound that I designed, then spent months crafting a series of reactions, overcoming one frustration after another along the way, to finally hold in my hand a purified and fully characterised sample of a compound which has never existed before. Take the satisfaction of solving a crossword puzzle or Rubik’s cube and multiply it by a thousand, and you have some idea of the feeling. Pure bliss.

Other exhilarating moments include

  • Discovering a new compound will crystallise well (makes purification easier, usually)
  • Finding a new compound is coloured (most of my compounds were either colourless oils or white solids)
  • Solving the analytical data to show the product of a reaction isn’t what I wanted; but that the new product is even more exciting and interesting
  • Making two reactions occur on a molecule at the same time
  • Reactions which result in a product which need no further purification (with some reactions purification can take much more time than the  reaction)
  • Holding in your hands a journal or book you have contributed to, seeing you name just below the title. While having work accepted is great, for me holding the work in my hands provides a more visceral joy.

Perfect moments in science don’t usually last for long, as there is always a new project to move onto, a new compound to make. But one should take time to enjoy and celebrate the moment.

Perhaps scientists reading this would care to share their perfect moments as well?

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