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Category → The Conscience of The Scientist

An apology to my readers

I have changed the title of my previous post to more accurately reflect a comment by Michael Eisen that sharing PDFs of journal articles is an act civil disobedience toward the scientific publishing enterprise.

I had previously compared the practice to the Underground Railroad or Napster music file sharing. I deeply regret the use of the analogy of PDF file sharing to the Underground Railroad, a network of abolitionists who facilitated the safe escape of enslaved African-Americans in the southern US to freedom in the North and northward to Canada.

I, in particular, should be especially sensitive to making such an ill-considered analogy of one of the most degrading episodes in US history to an intellectual discussion of sharing scientific papers.

It was wrong, period. I apologize deeply to my friends, students, colleagues, and any others who were offended by my thoughtless mistake.

Great scientists: biochembelle on the Haber-Bosch process

With apologies for the radio silence here, I’m off to perform some professional service for our nation’s medical research agency over the next two-and-a-half days.

In the meantime, let me direct your viewing eyes to a terrific post from this weekend by my chemist/biochemist colleague, biochembelle, at her blog, There and (hopefully) back again. Her post about Fritz Haber follows from a discussion on Twitter and at Nature Chemistry’s

Skeptical Chymist blog on an unscientific survey of the “greatest” chemists of all time.

biochembelle has a beautifully illustrated history of Haber and the process that fueled a massive increase in food production while also creating a method for chemical warfare. She considers very seriously how we are to view Haber’s role in the latter respect. In this regard, an excellent comment came in from British expat, Tideliar, on putting ourselves in the mindset of a generation that knew that war was inevitable at some point in their lifetime.

‘belle’s post also taught me what BASF stands for as well.

Once again, you can read biochembelle’s post on Fritz Haber here.

Our old friend, Leigh K Boerner, also has a bit more lighthearted look at Haber-Bosch as well.

David Nichols with chemist blogger Andrea Sella on BBC4 IYC programme

Our beloved C&EN online editor, Rachel Pepling, pointed out to me yesterday an insightful post about David Nichols by University College London chemist, Andrea Sella, at his Solarsaddle’s Blog. You’ll recall that my previous post commented on the Nature

commentary by Purdue University distinguished chemist and pharmacologist, David Nichols, as he lamented how some of his synthetic schemes for neuroactive compounds have been adopted by those in the recreational street drug industry.

In his post, “Is David Nichols just a wee bit disingenuous?,” Sella discusses how Nichols did not reveal in the commentary his professional relationship with revered “psychedelic” chemist, Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin. I probably don’t have to tell chemists about Shulgin – and that Shulgin’s 1991 book co-authored with his wife, Ann, entitled, PIKHAL: A Chemical Love Story, is the central holy book of drug users wishing to expand their consciousness and explore their mystic relationship with the world and themselves. (PIKHAL stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved – the Shulgins also wrote another book on tryptamines, TIKHAL.). PIKHAL is part fictionalized autobiography of the couple and part synthesis and personal bioassay descriptions of about 200 psychoactive compounds.

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David Nichols, legal highs, and the social responsibilities of the scientist

David E. Nichols, PhD, Robert C. and Charlotte P. Anderson Distinguished Chair in Pharmacology, Dept. of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, College of Pharmacy, Purdue University.

Since we ended last year with a post on legal highs – and who decides which analogs are illegal – we logically begin this year, the International Year of Chemistry, with further discussion of synthetic, psychoactive intoxicants.

Today, Nature published an excellent commentary from Dr. David E. Nichols, entitled, “Legal highs: the darker side of medicinal chemistry.” Nichols, a distinguished chair in pharmacology at Purdue University’s College of Pharmacy, reflects on how he is haunted by the deaths that could be tracked back to unintended human use of compounds he and his group have synthesized in the course of legitimate biomedical research. Other scientists whose work has been used for nefarious purposes are likely to share these feelings, both in neuropharmacology and other areas of biological and physical sciences.

Even in my area of natural products and dietary supplements, several colleagues and I have had our work co-opted by herbal manufacturers to sell their goods, most often in the form of overinterpreting in vitro data to make false claims for human use. The listing of the full citations of our associated papers – or even investigator photographs – on manufacturer web pages to imply that we academic scientists have supported their product claims.

However, the same use of synthetic chemistry publications by chemists skirting federal drug laws is a far more serious issue that Nichols addresses in the Nature commentary. Back in October, we discussed here the views of Nichols on one’s scholarly work in neuropharmacology being adopted by the legal highs industry following a Wall Street Journal article by Jeanne Whalen. In fact, Nichols cites that WSJ article in his Nature commentary where his work was described by a Dutch legal highs entrepreneur:

He (David Llewellyn) and his chief chemist get ideas for new drugs by scanning scientific literature. They pay particularly close attention to new papers published by scholars known for researching mind-altering, psychoactive substances.

David Nichols, a pharmacologist at Purdue University, has been especially valuable, Mr. Llewellyn says. Through his work studying brain receptors, Dr. Nichols has developed a range of psychoactive substances. His papers give a full description of the drugs he’s using, including their chemical makeup. This provides Llewellyn and others with a roadmap for making the drugs.

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