(Applicant was free to choose topic)
Had my synthesis reaction worked—yes or no? It was a simple question, but I had already spent hours trying to answer it in vain. As much as I loved chemistry, my patience was wearing thin. Midnight had come and gone three hours ago, and the long evening had taken its toll. With bleary eyes I pored over page after page of cluttered data, trying to make sense of the results. Occasionally my heart would leap as I chanced upon a promising tidbit, but no sooner would I get my hopes up than the morsel would reveal itself as a false lead. I was at once eager to move forward yet hesitant to do so: the right judgment about a piece of data could spring the analysis toward a conclusion, but the wrong judgment could push it just as far in the opposite direction.
My inner pragmatist and inner perfectionist were duking it out to see who would decide my approach to the problem. At this juncture, I honestly didn’t know which one to obey. The pragmatist dangled the allure of compromise: if only I overlooked a few inconsistencies here and there, the remainder of the data would fall neatly into place. Admittedly, the conclusion might not be entirely right, but neither would it be entirely wrong. The perfectionist, on the other hand, insisted on rigor: if even one piece of data proved incompatible with a theory, then I would have to reshape that theory to take it into account. To do anything less would be an insult to science.
In principle, making sense of the results of nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, spectroscopy called for the perfectionist’s approach. Even though the technology allowed chemists to deduce the structures of unknown molecules with more precision than ever before, reaching that high-hanging fruit required one to tease meaning from reams of data that bordered on the cryptic. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that NMR spectroscopy uses the magic of physics to transform a molecule into a line on paper. This line, called the NMR spectrum, forms a series of peaks and valleys and encodes all the information a chemist needs to reconstruct that molecule’s structure.
The challenges of the interpretation process, however, meant that the pragmatist often held sway. Although each peak corresponds to a specific feature of the molecule in theory, in practice an NMR spectrum can look indecipherable: frenzied clusters of peaks vie for space and crowd each other out, producing ambiguities that riddle every step of the analysis. In particularly nasty cases, a subtle difference between two otherwise identical molecules can give rise to wildly different results. Likewise, two otherwise unlike molecules might give similar results if they share a few key similarities. Scientific instruments can also introduce artifacts—for example, by merging two separate peaks into one. Neglecting a small but telling detail often spelled woe for the unwitting chemist; the intricate nature of the analysis practically invited unwarranted assumptions.
I had bogged down in the process of deciding which features to consider relevant. If I chose to ignore one detail, then the rest would form a plausible conclusion. If I chose to ignore a different detail, however, the result might well be something entirely contrary. If reconciling such possibilities had seemed like finding a needle in a haystack when I started, it now felt downright Sisyphean. The lack of progress was all the more exasperating because I had foreseen the difficulties: despite starting early and budgeting extra time, the work had still bloated into the wee hours. With each passing minute the pragmatist’s approach looked more and more enticing.
The perfectionist, however, refused to give up. Just as I readied myself to take the easy way out, instinct told me to keep working. I had come so far, it said, and all the work I had invested would go to waste if I accepted a half-baked conclusion now. Reinvigorated by this new thirst for the answer, I drove onward. Four o’clock, then five o’clock, melted away as I inched toward the truth. Several times I started to stretch the facts, but each time I caught myself and forced my reasoning back onto solid ground. When the last piece of the puzzle finally fell into place, I looked up and realized, almost surprised, that the seemingly impossible task had come to an end. I checked my work one last time and knew, with great satisfaction, that my synthesis reaction had worked. Despite all the false starts, the apparently intractable data, and the conflicting data, my love of chemistry had prevailed.
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