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Nobel Prize Winner’s Unfinished Symphony

01 August 2011 Elsevier

When Robert Burns Woodward passed away in 1979 he left 699 pages of handwritten notes. Because R.B. Woodward was a Nobel Laureate (Chemistry, 1965) his family had carefully preserved his notes for posterity. A paper published in Elsevier’s Tetrahedron summarizes the process of an extensive study uncovering the hidden treasures in these notes. 

The notes were meticulously drawn sketches outlining Woodward’s ideas on organic superconductors. Woodward’s family felt these notes could provide valuable insights to other chemists. With the help of Prof Robert Williams from the Colorado State University, two suitable researchers - Michael P. Cava and M.V. Lakshmikantham from the University of Alabama - were appointed to study these notes extensively. The result of this long study is presented in the paper to be published in Tetrahedron, including original scans of Woodward’s work. Chemical Engineering and News, a weekly journal of the American Chemical Society, describes in more detail the work that went into producing this paper (Volume 89, number 22, pp.46-49).

Cava and Lakshmikantham had no easy task. Although the family had numbered the pages and later digitally scanned them, the notes were written on various types of paper and at various times as the ideas occurred. Cava and Lakshmikantham took some of the main compounds from Woodward’s notes, redrawing them using modern techniques, also searching for any later available literature on the same compounds.

A superconductor allows electricity to flow without resistance. Although the first superconductor had been described in 1911, Woodward developed his ideas when superconductors were still at an experimental stage and the only superconductors known operated at very low temperatures, meaning their practical use was limited. Woodward felt confident he could develop an organic superconductor which would operate at room temperature: his notes set out his ideas for suitable compounds.

This paper, is a worthy reminder of Robert Burns Woodward’s standing within both his family and the scientific community.

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