Skip to Main Content


December 3, 2007
Volume 85, Number 49
p. 88

Chemical Coriolis Effect

Courtesy of Philip Fuchs
Compound 46: Twist and shout.

The phone rang the other day, and it was Clark Eid, a drug discovery chemist at Wyeth. Eid called to say that he appreciated the C&EN article on CHIRAL SYMMETRY BREAKING (C&EN, Oct. 29, page 30). The article reminded him of a Journal of Organic Chemistry paper he once saw that described the synthesis of a chiral intermediate to make a diterpene (J. Org. Chem. 1988, 53, 3647).

The highlight of the JOC article for Eid, and the connection to chiral symmetry, is a photograph, a single paragraph of text, and a couple of footnotes in the 12-page paper. Compound 46, a minor product, was left sitting in a vial for a couple of weeks, upon which it was discovered to have mysteriously crystallized into a right-handed helical shape.

To further investigate the unusual happening, the researchers, led by Philip L. Fuchs of Purdue University, sent a sample to colleagues at Australian National University, where it then crystallized in the opposite helical sense. Fuchs and coworkers speculated that the northern and southern crystalline twists result from the Coriolis effect. This effect, owing to Earth's rotation, has been seen in crystals before, Fuchs says, "probably often."

Contrary to popular lore, the Coriolis effect does not cause water in sinks, bathtubs, and toilets to drain in opposite directions north and south of the equator—it isn't strong enough to operate on small objects on short timescales. But it does give rise to the rotation direction of low-pressure storm systems: Hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere turn counterclockwise, and cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere turn clockwise.

At any rate, Eid says he enjoys finding such chemical tidbits in the literature and is considering compiling the examples he has come across into a book.


Courtesy of Justin Williams
Microfluidics: Physical biology in action.

Once upon a time, naming the scientific disciplines was easy: chemistry physics, biology, and geology. But the antireductionism movement—that is, the effort to avoid keeping things simple—means that nowadays there are more SCIENTIFIC DISCIPLINES than one can shake a stick at.

It's easy to create new disciplines from the ones that already exist by adding a prefix or a suffix, such as shoving a "nano" in front of some word or tacking an "omics" onto the end of it. Another trick is combining the names of two or more disciplines: physical chemistry, chemical physics; biochemistry, chemical biology; geochemistry, chemical geology; and so on.

The latest one of these corruptions, recently overheard in discussion at a chemistry conference, is physical biology. This was described as the discipline designed to make biology more quantitative. Seeking a clarification, Newscripts did what anyone does these days when looking for the truth: consult Wikipedia.

But physical biology must be too new, because there's no entry. So instead, the journal Physical Biology had to suffice. The journal's aims and scope statement says that physical biology has the goal of advancing the quantitative characterization and understanding of biological systems at different levels of complexity, from single molecules to molecular and cellular networks.

How is physical biology different from biophysics, you ask? Here, Wikipedia helps: Biophysicists attempt to indirectly observe or model the structures and interactions of individual molecules or complexes of molecules that regulate biological functions. Okay, physical biology and biophysics sound very similar and may even be the same thing.

Eventually, this name game could lead to something really hairy, like physbiogeochemecology. This homogeneous anti-antireductionist discipline could be the unifying "science of everything" that physicists and philosophers of science keep talking about.

This week's column was written by Steve Ritter. Please send comments and suggestions to

Save/Share »

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


Save/Share »

Adjust text size:

A- A+

Articles By Topic