Woodward and Corey


I just attended the final lecture of one of my Fall 2012 classes, Chemistry 348, Organic Reaction Mechanisms. My professor was a grad student at Harvard in the late 1960s, where R. B. Woodward and E. J. Corey were professors. He told the class an amusing story about Woodward and Corey, which I enjoyed so much that I felt I had to share it. I’m not aware of this story being written down anywhere.

The story goes that in those days the chemistry graduate students at Harvard used to put on Christmas plays. One grad student, who went unnamed, decided to put on a play. This student did not like Corey very much. In the play, the caretaking staff of Harvard had gone on strike, and the assistant professors had to take out the garbage instead. (This was not an important detail of the story, and my professor did not clarify whether such a strike took place in real life.) Woodward, a full professor, would sit at his desk and write down ideas, sorting them into two piles: one for the good ideas, and one for the bad ideas. He would throw out the bad ideas; Corey, meanwhile, had laid a rope across the hallway outside Woodward’s office, and whenever the assistant professor would take out Woodward’s garbage, Corey would pull the rope taut and trip the poor fellow, causing papers to spill everywhere. He would then gather Woodward’s bad ideas and piece them together.

Apparently, Corey was so furious upon seeing this play that he cancelled all future Christmas plays in the department. Over a decade later, after Woodward’s death, Corey would famously claim that Woodward had stolen his ideas about orbital symmetry in pericyclic reactions (which would become the Woodward–Hoffmann rules, for which Hoffmann won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and passed them off as his own. My professor speculated that this was in fact caused by the Christmas play incident that had occurred so long ago. He also told us that he wrote a letter to Hoffmann on this topic, and that Hoffmann agreed with his assessment.

Anyway, that’s it for that story. I also want to share two updates in my life. First, I finished that annoying physical chemistry research project I mentioned in the previous post. (It’s nice that that course has no final exam.) The topic was surface roughness effects in titanium dioxide-catalyzed photooxidation. There were a number of technical difficulties we encountered and I really think that we didn’t have enough lab time to obtain any accurate results in photocatalysis. In the end, we found no statistically significant effects of surface roughness on the rate of degradation, although we are not actually sure whether the surfaces ended up varying in roughness anyway. Second, I’ve given up on the topic of morality altogether—since it has no basis in objective morality, I’ve had to abandon it, and, besides, everyone these days seems to have morals that are flexible to the point where they can’t really be called morals at all.

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About Brian

Hi! I'm Brian Bi. As of November 2014 I live in Sunnyvale, California, USA and I'm a software engineer at Google. Besides code, I also like math, physics, chemistry, and some other miscellaneous things.
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