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R.J.P. Williams and the advantages of thinking like a chemist

Powell’s City of Books occupies 1.6 acres of retail floor space in downtown Portland, Oregon and is one of my favorite places in the world. My first time there, I searched out the chemistry shelves–and was slightly disappointed. I counted two cases of chemistry books sandwiched between biology and physics, which had eight cases each.

I’m a chemist, so my perspective is decidedly biased, but, still, this puzzles me. In the Periodic Table of Elements, the entire universe is represented and ordered, stacked up like so many books. Chemistry has carved its own niche in the collective psyche of the popular culture. The stories of Breaking Bad and Big Hero 6 depend on powerful chemists, and chemical symbols and structures decorate ads and T-shirts.

But chemistry also entails “chemophobia.” Ever since the days of the secretive, mystical, and decidedly unsuccessful alchemists, my discipline has evoked some suspicion (after all, chemicals can be noxious and/or toxic). Even the great philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his preface to Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, wrote that chemistry “doesn’t strictly count as a ‘science’, and would be better referred to as a systematic art.”

In the past few decades, a group of philosophers have taken issue with Kant’s assertion and have established a specific philosophy of chemistry. They argue that chemistry presents a coherent way of looking at the world that is distinct in philosophy and practice–and that chemists can see aspects of the world that are overlooked by biologists or physicists.

Image Credit: Beaker by Amy. CC BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Image Credit: Bio Lab by Amy. CC BY-2.0 via Flickr.

The life of Oxford chemist R.J.P. (“Bob”) Williams (1926-2015) shows how the world benefited from a uniquely chemical viewpoint. Williams started his chemical career early, as an inorganic chemist. (Organic chemists study carbon, while inorganic chemists study metals.) As an undergraduate, Williams researched how transition metals bind non-metals. His work formed the basis for the Irving-Williams series, which I learned as an undergraduate in my inorganic chemistry class. Therefore, as an undergraduate, Williams discovered chemistry that is now taught to other undergraduates.

Williams remained an inorganic chemist at heart, and co-wrote an influential inorganic textbook in the 1960s. However, he soon saw how inorganic chemistry influences other areas, such as the chemistry of living things. His writings helped found the field of “Bio-Inorganic Chemistry.” This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not. The fields of biochemistry and inorganic chemistry synergistically provide insight into how life works in the present and evolved in the past.

In my biochemistry class, I teach no fewer than four crucial stories in this field that Williams developed from his chemical perspective:

  1. Williams helped Max Perutz figure out how iron in the context of hemoglobin chemically binds oxygen in the lungs and releases it in the tissues, because iron adopts chemically unusual spin states.
  2. Williams collaborated with Bert Vallee to determine how zinc in the context of particular enzymes cuts other proteins or metabolizes alcohol.
  3. In a discussions with Peter Mitchell, Williams helped Mitchell work out that mitochondria store their energy in a protein gradient rather than as a covalently bound intermediate, solving a chemical mystery that stymied the field for decades.
  4. In collaboration with the Oxford Enzyme Group, Williams applied the chemical instrumentation of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) to find the structure of complex protein molecules.

Each of these springs from a distinctly chemical insight. Despite having a hand in all of these fundamental discoveries, Williams is not mentioned in the biochemistry text I use. His collaborative spirit allowed others to take the spotlight. Following a recent ACS Symposium titled “The Posthumous Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Correcting the Oversights and Errors of the Nobel Prize Committee,” R.J.P. Williams was mentioned on the short list of scientists who should have won the Nobel Prize but didn’t.

For all of these accomplishments, I find the last two decades of William’s writing to be the most intellectually provocative. Williams co-wrote several books including The Natural Selection of the Chemical Elements (1996), The Chemistry of Evolution (2006), and Evolution’s Destiny (2012). These combine inorganic chemistry with biological evolution to describe a logical chemical sequence that the planet underwent as oxygen was released into the atmosphere over billions of years. As a result, different parts of the periodic table were available to life three billion years ago than are available today, making different chemical structures and causing different reactions.

Williams showed great skill in combining chemistry with biology to tell the story of natural history on a geological time scale. For example, he gave chemical reasons why life uses phosphate to store information in DNA, why life collects magnesium to help stabilize that phosphate, why it must reject calcium to avoid solidifying that phosphate, and why it also must accept potassium and reject sodium to maintain osmotic balance. In Williams’s story, calcium, potassium, and sodium are later used for specific jobs in nerve signaling that are based on their chemistry in water. As a result, the nerves that are firing in your brain as you read this are using these elements in a way that Williams justified using the periodic table.

Williams wrote down most of this story before genomic data became widely available in the first decade of the 21st century. After that data was analyzed, multiple research groups confirmed that the broad outlines of this story are indeed encoded in the DNA of the biosphere. Using his chemical intuition, Williams made predictions and told a story that was later confirmed by multiple lines of evidence.

In conclusion, we can file books onto specific shelves and classify them in multiple ways, but the world does not recognize our disciplinary boundaries. The career of R.J.P. Williams shows how a dedication to one area of chemistry can benefit fields as distant as evolutionary biology. When a chemist looks at a flower or a mountain, she will also see the atomic structures hidden deep within each, and that specific perspective enriches the others.

Featured image credit: Bookshelf by Matl. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. David Copper

    Chemistry is one of my favorite subjects but I like Organic Chemistry most. Feeling sorrow to know that only two cases of chemistr books are available on Powell’s City of Books

  2. Glyn Williams

    Thanks, Ben, for a very insightful article that captures Bob’s insights and importance to a generation of ‘biological chemists’. I was fortunate to be a student of Bob’s during his ‘protein structure era’ but we also learned from him about the flux of energy and elements that characterised living cells and how to apply thermodynamic ideas to such systems. Proteins were never static sculptures, but always dynamic entities and members of his group have gone on to work in areas from material science to protein misfolding and drug design.

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