To artificially create carbon-based compounds relies on outside help to facilitate the many ways in which carbon atoms can join onto each other and other atoms. The tools of the trade are a host of chemicals, or reagents, which take part in reactions that piece together the correct molecules in the correct manner in a step-by-step manner, either by binding them together in the right way or modifying them to provide a useful intermediate step for creating the final product. The two recipients of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry added valuable reagents to the chemical assembly toolbox by taking unfashionable elements in chemistry and showing how they interact with carbon atoms in unexpected, and as it turns out very useful, ways.
A book he received as a graduation present provided Herbert Brown with the inspiration for studying boron, an element investigated by few chemists. His fascination with how this element attaches itself to other elements like hydrogen and carbon led him to systematically study a range of boron-containing compounds, rigorously piecing together the step-by-step way in which they carry out chemical reactions. By pursuing particularly unusual looking reactions or those that did not meet their expected outcomes, Brown discovered that the chemical sodium borohydride, under specific reaction conditions, could affect carbon atoms in previously unseen ways, rearranging them or providing a useful intermediate for creating bonds between carbon and other elements, such as oxygen or nitrogen. As a result, sodium borohydride became one of the most versatile reagents chemists have at their disposal, providing a range of new possibilities for linking carbon atoms to each other when synthesizing various chemicals.
Georg Wittig also studied the course of reactions, in his case involving chemicals that contain the dangerous and explosive element phosphorus. His investigations of a class of compounds he discovered called ylides showed that a peculiar exchange takes place when they react with compounds containing carbon and oxygen, resulting in a product that contains the type of double bond between two carbon atoms that exists naturally in many important compounds. Chemists had other ways for creating double bonds, but this reaction, later named after Wittig, soon became a standard tool in creating artificial compounds, as it allowed them to introduce carbon-carbon double bonds at precise locations conveniently and effectively.
This Speed Read is supported by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences.