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Chemical Eye on a Musical Ear
by Preston MacDougall


March 31, 2005

In late 19th century St. Petersburg, chemistry professor Dmitri Mendeleev became widely known for his periodic chart of the elements. Whereas his colleague, Alexander Borodin, despite synthesizing the first organic compound containing fluorine, was to be remembered for his second string quartet in D, and other beautiful compositions of the musical variety.

jpg Preston MacDougall

I didn't learn this latter bit of trivia (possibly while watching Jeopardy!) until after I had started teaching chemistry. I was just a sophomore, however, when I first encountered another musical chemist, not on TV but between the psychedelic covers of Norman L. Allinger's "Organic Chemistry."

This book is out of print now, and the cover would be "far out" out of style, but I recall that his pedagogy had quite a different timbre than what I currently discover while browsing through university bookstores when I am out and about in academia.

The pre-professional key of a majority of today's organic chemistry students, and the accompanying necessity of high scores on the MCAT or PCAT auditions, are well-served by the encyclopedic nature of their three-inch-thick sidekicks. Every important class of organic compounds has its own chapter, and the chapter sequence is remarkably constant from one text to the next. Here, "importance" correlates well with the frequency of related questions on standardized tests, which means that the Borodin-Hunsdiecker reaction is seldom found within the best-sellers.

To give each its own distinctiveness, texts are now peppered with color-shaded "boxes" of ancillary material, such as Borodin's musical fame, for instance. To the student, however, the colored background is code for "This material will not be on the test." It's as though the formulas have spread from the chemical reactions to the pedagogy, and the result is a publishers' symphony of B flats.

What is missing is the sense of endless, not just numerous, variations on the carbon theme. Like the jazz pianist that I later discovered him to be, Allinger's textbook covered the same material as its competitors, but with a more narrative style.

Sure, there was plenty of bold text for me to highlight with my fluorescent markers, but there was also room for my imagination to explore tangents. The author's own style, which, as I recall, used the words "might" and "could be" more freely than my other virtual tutors, seemed to encourage creative theorizing. It strikes me now that the chemistry was the same, but his style was in a different key - where many others, then and now, wrote B flats, he wrote A sharps.

At least these are the scores as graded by my chemical eye. I should disclose that both Dr. Allinger and I are chemists of the theoretical persuasion - preferring computers to chromatography columns as our instruments of research - so my judgment may be biased. In fact, come to think of it, my own reversal of fortune, from pre-med to post-modern, began around my sophomore year. (Note to self: Do not under-estimate a subtle bias.)

Although Dr. Allinger's text was never near the top of the publishers' hit parade, he is very well known among chemists as one of the pioneers of what he called "molecular mechanics." If you have ever seen a computer-generated movie of molecules, such as a proteins, "doing their thing", whether that is partially digesting a carbohydrate, or pumping calcium ions across a membrane, chances are that the computer code, used to do the simulation, was at least partly based on one of Allinger's early compositions. To underscore this point, I note that among his many accolades he was awarded the Chemical Pioneer Award by the American Institute of Chemists.

Less widely appreciated among chemists, is that for twenty-five years, spanning his undergraduate years in Berkeley, his graduate school days in L.A., and his first faculty appointment in Detroit, Norman L. Allinger was a chemist by day, while Lou Allinger was a professional jazz pianist by night. Looking back, he says "My chemistry friends thought I was very strange to play in honky tonks at nights, but my musician friends also thought I was very strange to teach in a university days, and chemistry at that."

A salvaged, and delightful, rendition
of the traditional jazz standard South.

You can't hang up a piano, but when he was offered the chance to start the Center for Computational Chemistry at the University of Georgia in 1970, he headed South, and hasn't played professionally since.

Coming of age, musically, in the San Francisco Bay area, a hot-bed of jazz from the bayou, Lou Allinger learned to play traditional, or New Orleans jazz, which was popular from the late 1800's until the 1930's, and requires a small band, not a big band. That came later, although not for Lou, who stuck to his musical roots. He never did learn to read music, which he says is not a problem in traditional jazz, where the important thing is to creatively improvise. Lou adds "I could not play the same thing twice if I tried."

On the other hand, the hallmark of his molecular mechanics programs is that although they can simulate very complex behavior, they do so reproducibly. He and his new band, also known as his research group, are still active, developing new parameters for accurately modeling organic chemistry involving alcohols, esters, sulfides, fluorocarbons and all that jazz.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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