Saturday, January 12, 2013

The 20 year effort to synthesize Penicillin : "technically sweet" but morally purposeless

The Chemistry of Penicillin (1949)  has more words in it than the Bible and is so heavy that if dropped from a plane, it would kill more people than penicillin has saved.

My review of it could consist of just three words : "why?" and "technically sweet" .

The effort of seeking to analysis the chemical nature of penicillin and then to artificially synthesize it only began to be done in dead earnest at the exact same time it was becoming clear that biological penicillin could do the just of saving millions just fine: cheaply and in time to be useful during the war.

"Why?" is thus answered by "penis envy" : chemists got jealous when it seemed biologists might get all the credit for the greatest medical discovery ever : this at a time when chemists alone - not physicists or biologists - ruled the top of the scientific roost.

But once started into it and the task proved to be exceedingly complicated, it became for all the alpha males who dominate the top of the science world all the more exciting.

The thrill of the chase took over : with catching the prize proving far more exciting than what might be actually done with the prize once it was got.

If this sounds at all familiar , it is because it is.

 Robert Oppenheimer explained why so many supposedly pacifistic physicists went on building the A-Bomb when it should have been clear from the public war news in Europe in the Fall of 1944, that if the Germans actually had "The Bomb" they weren't about to use it even in the face of certain imminent defeat.

The A Bomb was proving a "technically sweet" scientific question : solve it first and then debate what to do with the results was what all these hundreds and hundreds of scientists (but one) resolved.

Synthetic penicillin, I argue, was equally morally vacuous from the Fall of 1944 onward...

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