Because it’s not there | Opinion


In 2008, I attended the 11th Dalton Discussion Meeting, The Renaissance of Main Group Chemistry, at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. Most of the guest lectures were short – only about five minutes – in the tradition of Faraday’s long series of talks. This is partly because the work had already been circulated to all participants as a complete peer-reviewed document, so the conference was only intended as a refresher. But the underlying reason was to devote most of the meeting to dialogue and discussion, rather than listening to isolated voices for long periods of time.

The format was at least a partial success, as those are the talks that stick in my mind almost 14 years later, rather than any of the talks. In particular, I remember a comment from Alan Cowley of the University of Texas at Austin: when asked why his group had made a particular compound, Cowley replied “Because it doesn’t is not there.

Cowley explained that he was referring to British mountaineer George Mallory’s famous response to the question of why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, on which he would tragically die in 1924: “Because it’s there.” For a mountaineer, that’s reason enough.

And it’s the same thing – or rather the opposite – for chemists. For all the justification for new properties or potential applications, often the challenge and eventual satisfaction of creating an actual physical sample of a substance that no one has ever made before, and perhaps never existed anywhere in the universe, is reward enough.

Cowley sadly passed away in August 2020, leaving a legacy of several hundred published papers, many trained students, and many compounds first produced in his lab. But these four simple words sum up a whole discipline very well.

Chemistry creates its own object, as the 19th century chemist Marcellin Berthelot said. For a large number of chemists, this is still true. May it be so for a long time.


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