|Interview by David Bradley
Mark Leach is a chemical researcher with a difference. He has worked at universities in the UK and overseas, acted as an A-level examiner as well as consulting for international companies and organizations.
However, it is his own company Meta-Synthesis—http://www.meta-synthesis.com—and its various software and now web-based resources that makes him unique. With Meta-Synthesis, Dr. Leach has drawn together numerous threads—his expertise in databases, chemistry, and education, as well as programming skills—to produce a site that aims to reveal the inner secrets of chemistry to as wide an audience as possible.
From the age of 13, Mark has had a subscription to the popular-science magazine Scientific American, and more recently the journal Nature. His scientific interests include cosmology, high energy and nuclear physics, materials science (particularly carbon nanotubes), geophysics, molecular biology, evolution, information technology, the brain, defense technology, and scientific ethics. Professionally, Mark is a chemist interested in 'chemistry, the-whole-thing'. David Bradley talked to Dr. Leach about the origins of meta-synthesis.com, his aspirations for his sites, and how chemistry education can be improved.
What is the mission statement for Meta-Synthesis and meta-synthesis.com?
Good question! And the short answer is to help scientists better understand the nature of chemical reactions and chemical reactivity. It is extraordinary, but chemistry textbooks currently fail to address this central and rather crucial issue. Sure, textbooks give lots of examples of different types of chemical interaction/reaction/process, but they largely leave it up to the reader to make sense of it all. By way of example: Inorganic textbooks address the issue of chemistry and chemical reactivity by periodic group: Hydrogen, Group I, Group II, etc. Organic texts go through the functional groups: alkanes, alkenes, alkynes, etc. Of course, before I could address the issue I had to study and understand the matter myself. Yes, it has been a long journey...
What can chemists and chemistry students do with the site?
In part, Meta-Synthesis consists of four inter-related open access chemistry resources. Currently three of these are up and running on the web: The Chemogenesis Web Book, or eBook, The Chemical Thesaurus reaction chemistry database, Chemistry Tutorials & Drills, and the fourth, Chemistry Software Gadgets/Applets is in preparation; prototypes of the various gadgets exist.
These are four parts of one whole: The Drills and Gadgets/Applets are driven by the ChemThes reaction chemistry database, and there are many links between Chemogenesis Web Book and The Chemical Thesaurus, and between The Chemical Thesaurus and the web book.
The reaction chemistry database is the glue that holds the project together. Indeed, it is more than that; the elegant rigor of the underlying database schema allows me to make some rather bold claims about the structure of reaction chemistry space, as discussed in the Chemogenesis web book.
Students are recommended to simply "play" with the site. I am sure that there are parts of the Chemogenesis Web Book they will find attractive and interesting. The Chemical Thesaurus reaction chemistry database should contain most of the chemical reactions they will have come across and might be expected to know. And, of course, students of chemistry can test their knowledge quietly and privately using the Chemistry Tutorials & Drills web site before the exam season starts.
How do the books and databases work synergistically?
I realized many years ago that books were great for discussing ideas, and databases were good for holding data. The Chemogenesis Web Book and The Chemical Thesaurus are therefore flip sides of the same coin: chemogenesis is "about" chemistry and chemical reactivity, while the raw reaction chemistry data is held in the database.
All chemistry books have tables of data in the text or at the end. The Meta-Synthesis approach takes this to its logical extreme.
The Chemistry Tutorials & Drills web site is designed for students of chemistry trying to get to grips with the subject. The fact is that there are some chemistry topics that must be learned by rote. Sorry, but that is the way it is! If a student cannot distinguish between an aldehyde and a ketone, for example, they will not be able to name aldehyde or ketone molecules or predict their differential reactivity. Chemistry Tutorials & Drills offers formative assessment (assessed self-study) and is designed to help with the rote-learning process. Topics currently covered are: the recognition of simple organic functional groups, valence shell electron pair repulsion (VSEPR), and balancing chemical reaction equations.
What are your other sites and why are they separate entities?
Strangely, the four parts: web book, reaction database, drills, and gadgets have grown apart over the years, where as at one time they appeared together. The four parts are distinct and now have distinct web addresses, but they are connected and linked together. There is too much material to absorb otherwise.
There is no reason why the Chemogenesis web book should be the only book that uses ChemThes database engine. For example, if Professor Jane Doe wants to write an e-book about natural products and their synthesis, she could write about classes of chemical and synthetic strategies and with all of the raw reaction data held in the ChemThes database.
It seems sensible to separate the four parts into four internet domains. This also helps me track the usage through the web statistics. I agree that the page design does not yet fully reflect the relationship between the various parts. The corporate design is work-in-progress.
How might your interest in chemical reactions and how they are classified translate into new insights for chemists through these various resource materials?
That is the question I cannot answer. It is not for me to say. However, what I do know is that I have had extraordinary insights into the nature of chemical science while doing this work, and hopefully others will understand these as well. I boldly claim in the web book: "Without the chemogenesis analysis, it is necessary to learn about chemical reactions and chemical reactivity by the accumulation and assimilation of facts. With chemogenesis, sense is made of a morass of chemical reaction information and the structure of reaction chemistry space logically emerges from physics, complexity and all."
Why is it important to continuously develop new tools and applications, such as the reaction database tools, within a site like meta-synthesis.com?
Because they are never finished! Actually, the chemogenesis web book is close to being finished, but the ChemThes database is far from full.
The www.chemthes.com web site contains a current dataset that includes "the majority of reactions a chemistry graduate should be familiar with". How do you ensure you have covered all areas accurately with this and other resources?
Yes I do make that claim, but with the important qualifier: "specialist modules excepted." I will turn the question round: what other chemistry would users want to see included? Actually, I know the answer. A whole lot more organic chemistry, one of the tasks for 2007.
What software gadgets are you developing now?
The gadgets will include: Gibbs Function Calculator, Redox Chemistry Predictor, Molecular Weight Calculator, Aromatic Substitution Predictor, Binary Material Property Predictor, Ksp, and Common Ion Calculator.
Your scientific interests are very diverse; in what ways is it important to be a polymath in chemistry these days?
I am only a chemical polymath in the sense that I refuse to recognize the stupid separation of chemistry into its organic, inorganic, and physical sub-disciplines. This irrational split confuses absolutely everybody. For example, inorganic chemistry texts (and lecturers) teach valence shell electron pair repulsion (VSEPR), and organic chemistry textbooks (and lecturers) teach hybridization.
Both VSEPR and hybridization predict/explain that methane, CH4, is tetrahedral, but what exactly is the relationship between the two approaches? I have never seen this issue discussed, yet it confused me when I was a student. There is a page in the Chemogenesis web book called A Timeline of Structural Theory that explicitly deals with the smorgasbord of classical and quantum theories available to the professional chemist (and thrust upon the chemistry student).
The media and the public seem to have a distorted perception of science, viz. the environment, genetically modified organisms, nuclear power, and other issues, how can we change that?
In the case of chemical reactions and chemical reactivity, it is not just the public who misunderstand the field, but most scientists and many chemists! I am a big fan of Richard Dawkins and fully support his fundamentalist approach of attacking irrational medieval belief systems. There is much work to be done. Since 9/11 and its aftermath, the rational world has gone backwards. To return to your question and the issue of genetically modified organisms. As a consumer, I would far prefer to eat vegetables that have been genetically modified to resist disease rather than ones that have been sprayed with toxic chemicals.
As information science encroaches more and more on the laboratory bench, what does the future hold for chemists and how will chemistry students cope with the changes?
Currently, there is no AutoCAD for chemistry, and until that application is developed bench chemistry will not change that much. That said, the use of chemical robots in professional laboratories will increase and analytical instrumentation will develop. I think that The Chemical Thesaurus reaction chemistry database can become the data-engine behind such a 'Chemistry-CAD' type application. And, in the same way that AutoCAD changed both engineering design and the engineering design process, so a 'Chemistry-CAD' type application will one day change chemistry. But we are not there yet.