Holy Grails of Chemistry

This is a linkpost-slash-suggestion to check out https://​​www.chemistryworld.com/​​holy-grails/​​.

In 1995, the journal Accounts of Chemical Researchpublished a series of articles called Holy Grails of Chemistry. This series of articles represents an attempt by a group of chemists to make a partial list of Hamming questions for chemistry. They chose eight research goals that they thought were worthy of the moniker of “Holy Grail”, and asked key researchers in those fields to write essays about why they were important and the potential gains if the goal were realized. Although not everyone was impressed with their choices, I think their selections have stood the test of time fairly well. The selected topics were Manipulation of Matter at the Atomic and Molecular Levels, Room Temperature Superconductors, Unnatural Selection in Chemical Systems, Direct Observation of the Transition State, Controlling the Future of Matter, Artificial Photosynthesis, Biomimetic Chemistry and Artificial Enzymes, and Selective Intermolecular Carbon-Hydrogen Bond Activation.

In September 2020, Chemistry World, the member magazine of the Royal Society for Chemistry, took a look at these “Holy Grails” 25 years later. Most have seen significant progress and we seem to be on the cusp of realizing the original aspirations of a couple.

I think the LessWrong audience might enjoy both the original articles as well as the follow-ups because of the community’s focus on intellectual progress and choosing important problems. Plus, there’s just some incredibly cool science summarized in the follow-up pieces. For instance, did you know that some hydride materials are superconductive up to 260 K if you subject them to crazy high pressures? Or that you can use directed evolution to expand the kinds of chemistry enzymes can catalyze? Or that we’re getting pretty good at functionalizing particular C-H bonds in complex organic molecules?

You can find the Chemistry World series starting from the splash page here. I would have come up with a somewhat different list of “most important topics in chemistry” than the original authors did, but that’s no surprise in a field as big and varied as chemistry is. I think the Chemistry World team did a good job of creating accessible summaries of the chemistry community’s ongoing quests for these “Holy Grails”.

Note: the Acc. Chem. Res. articles are paywalled but the Chemistry World articles are not.