Category Archives: Uncategorized

A different time you understand: Woodward on B12

Chemist Robert Burns Woodward – Courtesy Harvard Archives

Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979) is as well known to chemists as his namesakes are to poets and journalists. His contributions to the synthesis of organic compounds cannot be overstated and a staggering number of now-famous professors passed through his labs at Harvard.

Chemistry was and is a huge field but the part that most people see is beakers, retorts, and churning solutions cooking up complex molecules. This is where Woodward became a legend at an early age. His unshared 1965 Nobel Prize was for “for his outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis” and not for any specific synthetic accomplishment. Interestingly, he felt that he deserved a share of the 1973 Nobel to Fischer and Wilkinson and would certainly have shared in the 1981 prize to Fukui and Hoffman, had he lived long enough.

My education was in physical chemistry, far removed from organic synthesis. I scarcely recall seeing any of faculty members from that area when I was in graduate school – the field is that fragmented. Unlike many others of my stripe, I enjoyed my undergraduate organic chemistry classes although I struggled in them. Legions of students have been told that the subject is to be endured, not enjoyed, and requires only memorization. This is utter claptrap. If taught well, and Berkeley did (at least back then), it is like learning a language; alphabet to words to grammar, sentences, literature, and interpretation. Those with an artistic bent also find a lot of fun in the complex three-dimensional structures that are represented out of necessity in two-dimensional drawings. You can’t speak this or any other language by memorizing a dictionary. Organic’s problem is that the material has to be presented and assimilated in such a short time.

Woodward’s generation of chemists didn’t have the modern arsenal of apparatus to determine the composition and structure of what they had made. In fact, they helped develop – or at least drive the need to develop – x-ray crystallography, magnetic resonance, optical and mass spectroscopy, and a variety of other methods closer to physics and physical chemistry. Deduction and inference played a starring role. E.J. Corey, only a few years younger than Woodward, later developed retrosynthetic analysis into a fine art leading to his own unshared Nobel in 1990. Corey looks at complex molecules as assemblies of successively smaller molecular fragments. Some of these might exist as stable compounds, others as hypothetical fragments that could be prepared with the right hooks for further use. Any molecule may be disconnected in several ways and the chemist has to use physical laws, experience, and intuition to decide which approach makes the most sense. Repeat recursively and it is usually possible to get to a relatively simple path from a desired product to commonly available starting materials – a common examination question and a standard tool in the modern chemist’s repertoire.

Some thirty two years after my undergraduate degree, I find myself using the retrosynthetic approach far from its original use. I try to look at problems as a nested collection of subproblems, going down the tree until they become relatively tractable. At the end of this, I have a plan that has traded off time, cost, and risk ending up with a list of materials, procedures, checks and crosschecks, time and personnel estimates, and a good idea of which step or steps pace the effort. In engineering, these map to schedules, risk analyses, bills of materials, assembly, test, and reporting plans, quality control, critical path analyses, and cost although in no particular order. People who do this are called System Engineers in my industry and many companies have claimed to have invented the concept.

Looking backward is how organic chemistry students are encouraged to approach problems if they want to succeed in their courses. The temptation is of course to apply it everywhere and that’s not quite so appropriate. It works if there’s a clear idea of what needs to be done. What sets Woodward, Corey, and their equivalents in other fields is knowing what to go after and what to set aside. That can be done many ways but it helps to be brilliant. If the computers can be taught to do that as they have been taught to do systematic decomposition, it’s over for us. A second temptation is to over-romanticize. These accomplishments in synthesis are usually the result of large research groups implementing a plan and doing the long, often tedious bench work which, when complete, is associated with the group leader’s name. This is where chemistry and high-energy physics intersect. This method of chemical training is imperfect and is periodically questioned when things go horribly wrong at the human level. The scientific and artistic merits of the work have to be assessed in that light.

There are not many films or recordings of Woodward and his equally legendary multi-hour lectures. He transcended his field and his institution, given leeway to do what he liked how he liked it. Dylan Stiles has unearthed a gem from the Harvard archives – a rare departmental seminar from 1972 where Woodward presents the 15-year collaborative effort between his group and Albert Eschenmoser’s lab resulting in the total synthesis of the large, unwieldy, and beautiful Vitamin B12. The introduction by Prof. David Dolphin is itself thirty minutes long with insights into the departmental culture of that time. The main event is a brutally clear and patrician exposition while the speaker chainsmokes in-between sips of his daiquiri. The grainy black-and-white visuals are charming but somewhat hard to read. Nathan Werner’s slides from a 2010 seminar are a very useful supplement.

Via the Youtube Channel of Dylan Stiles:

 

Take a Leap: Frasier Crane on the 29th of February

Twenty years ago, Dr. Frasier Crane urged his listeners, family, and friends to use February 29th as a “free day” to take chances.  It didn’t end well.  Here’s the famous clip of Crane trying to sing his “signature piece” for a PBS Pledge Drive.

Context and (over?)analysis at The Onion’s AV Club.

Frasier sings buttons and bows

Watch this video on YouTube.

Art of the possible- Astro Boy and the God of Comics at Sacred Fools

Courtesy: Sacred Fools Theatre

21 July 2015 Update: Astro Boy has extended through 8 August

It’s a marvel that the current West Coast Premiere at The Fools takes on so many issues so successfully in the space of seventy minutes.  On its surface, ‘Astro Boy and the God of Comics’ is a retrosynthetic look at Japanese animator Osamu Tezuka, legendary within a circle, but poorly known outside of it.  Natsu Onoda Power has crafted twelve tight vignettes starting with a cartoon character flying off to save the world and working backward to the early years of the man who created him. The steps in between make us ask where exactly the lines between culture and sub-culture, high art and pop art, and science and society are drawn – pun intended.  Director Jaime Robledo and an exceptional cast and crew pull it off much like they did with ‘When Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ a couple of years ago.

This is a tech-heavy show blending live performers, puppets, projections, and real-time art.   It is all required – this artist’s life can’t be told without his creations and those creations have to move.  Tezuka came from a happy childhood, lived through World War II, and watched his art take off into commerce thereafter.  His success in comics fueled an animation empire that generated the beloved Astro Boy cartoon but that ultimately couldn’t sustain itself.

The preshow visuals  warmup the neophyte, hinting at why the man was and is such a big deal.  Small projectors discreetly hidden in the light grid shine on two gauzy screens and the back wall as needed.   It’s ‘Dry Cleaning’ quality work with the added complexities of a large cast living in this half-real, half-animated world.    Matt Richter and Anthony Backman transform a small physical space into a city, a world, a solar-system with tricks of perspective, light, and shadow all without being overtly clever about it.

In an evening of tech done right, it’s live art that vaults ‘Astro Boy’ into tour-de-force.  Performers in Los Angeles are adept at some combination of acting, dancing, singing, and backstage work.  Art Director Aviva Pressman has her ensemble drawing the scenery  in jaw-dropping synch with the rest of the business.    It’s no gimmick, its not mere doodling, and must have presented substantial headscratching in casting.   The actors draw characters and scenery in pens, ink, and charcoal onto large tearaway sheets on the back wall.  The choreography is mesmerizing especially in the Guernica-for-Hiroshima roughly halfway through the work.   Each sheet is ripped down at the end of a scene, crumpled, and hauled off stage.  It’s a damn shame – they’d make fine auction pieces for a theatre in the midst of a capital campaign.  West Liang and Heather Schmidt nimbly represent Tezuka and Astro Boy although the short span of the play doesn’t and can’t fully explore their Gepetto Pinocchio relationship.  There are allusions to Clarke, Dick, and Asimov as the rights, roles, and responsibilities of superhumans bump up against the anxieties of their human creators.   Liang and Schmidt manage to imbue their re-enactions of cartoon scenes with surprising tenderness.  Among the uniformly excellent ensemble, Megumi Kabe stands out with a wistful portrayal, in Japanese, of Tezuka’s utterly loyal but shamefully neglected wife.

Graphic novels, anime, manga –  call them what you will.  At their best, they can take us into worlds orthogonal to more common forms of storytelling.  This intersection of cartoon and stage beautifully serves both and is a tribute to the art of possibilities and the possibilities of art.  Time is running out.  Don’t miss it.

鉄腕アトム日本ゴーゴープロモ!(Astro Boy Japanese Go Go Promo!)

Watch this video on YouTube.
ASTRO BOY AND THE GOD OF COMICS
JUNE 20 – JULY 25, AUGUST 8, 2015
Sacred Fools Theatre Company
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
Sundays @ 7pm
660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90004
(310) 281-8337 or Buy Tickets Online

Cast
Heather Schmidt as Astro Boy
West Liang as Osamu Tezuka

Ensemble:
Zach Brown, Megumi Kabe, Anthony Li, Mandi Moss, Jaime Puckett & Marz Richards

Understudies
Erin Sanzo as Astro Boy
Scot Shamblin  as Osamu Tezuka

Ensemble:
Gregory Guy Gorden , Lisa Anne Nicolai, & Aviva Pressman

Crew:
Lead Producer / Technical Supervisor – Brian W. Wallis
Live Art Director – Aviva Pressman
Assistant Director – Rebecca Larsen
Associate Producer (Design/Tech) – Shaunessy Quinn
Associate Producer (Casting/Outreach) – Seamus Sullivan
Marketing Coordinator – Carrie Keranen
Stage Manager – Heatherlynn Gonzalez
Assistant Stage Manager – Suze Campagna
Scenic Design – DeAnne Millais
Lighting Design – Matt Richter
Costume Design – Linda Muggeridge
Prop Design – Brandon Clark
Puppet Design – Natsu Onoda Power
Sound Design – Jaime Robledo
Original Music – Ryan Johnson
Stunt/Fight Choreography – Mike Mahaffey
Suzuki Trainer – Joe Fria
Projection Video Design – Anthony Backman
Projection Animation Design – Jim Pierce
Animation Painter – Danielle Heitmuller
Stage Crew – Bo Powell & Alyson Schultz
Production Intern – Sophie Pietrkowski
Performance PhotographyJessica Sherman Photography
Key Art – Christopher Komuro

 

 

With Folded Hands

1984 didn’t happen exactly on the year but the foundations had been laid by then. Computers were better when networked and the research labs of the world began to view the schlepping of data and email as indispensable. A few years after that, CERN and Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web and stuff happened.

Some of the most sought-after jobs these days, at least among the tech crowd, involve creating machines and algorithms to do what humans once did. The first rule of finance is to find the cheapest source of human labor, close behind that is replacing that labor altogether. With corporations having the effective status of a person, it is unsurprising that they’d seek effective analogs of workers. In this case, the analogs are digital. At some point, the machines will get just good enough to make it a contest between them and us. Science Fiction has loved this theme but it always felt too far off in the future for the current crop to fret. CGP Grey – whoever that may be – says, “Not so fast.” The thesis is not perfect and stacked in aspects but the underlying concern is not. “Grey” does spend some time looking at the human implications of staggering unemployment and the inequalities it will deepen.

An underappreciated representation of these fears, “With Folded Hands,” appeared in 1947 and was adapted into a radio story on Dimension X. It is worth a listen.

Sculpture in the Garden at the Maloof Foundation

Sam Maloof’s name is known to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of woodworking. His handcrafted home in Rancho Cucamonga is a small cathedral of light containing pieces from his illustrious 60 year career. He built it as he built his furniture – in its own time with what he had available, and to suit his family’s needs. It is hard to find one highlight of the tours offered on Thursdays and Saturdays by the Foundation he left behind. For me, it is a dead-heat between the spiral staircase leading to an airy loft and the chance to be cradled in one of his hallmark chairs.

As his fame grew, he and his late wife Alfreda began collecting and cultivating friendships with other artists in greater Southern California. The Sculpture in the Garden exhibit on the Foundation’s grounds until 10 July 2014 is a loving tribute to a couple whose generosity is as renowned as their craft. Over forty artists were asked to pick a spot and to create something for it. They chose well and came up with a wonderful collection of eye-catching pieces, each seeming to sprout from where it sits. The current garden is thanks to Mrs. Beverly Wingate Maloof whom Sam married after Alfreda’s passing.

This is the canonical great way to spend an afternoon. Tour the house and then stroll around the garden, taking each little surprise as it comes along. This exhibit is not for those steeped in theory, looking for profound analytical opportunities. It is an unapologetic celebration. Photography is not allowed in the house. No great loss since Maloof’s creations are documented extensively. Unlike most museums, guests can lay hands on the tables, chairs, and benches. On the grounds, there is no such restriction. Herewith, a sample.