I really enjoyed this Curious Wavefunction post on being born at the right time. He uses the example of R. B. Woodward, who was several years older than most of the other big names from the glory days of synthetic organic chemistry (Corey, Stork, etc.), and had already had a chance to use his immense talents to make a mark on the field before they came along. The point is that Woodward was not only a tremendously gifted and hard-working chemist, but that he came along at a time when his abilities could have the biggest impact.
The other example in that post is a famous one, the generation of physicists who sorted out quantum mechanics. That was a relatively brief period, and it was done by a relatively small cohort of younger workers in the field (only Schrödinger was a bit older). If you were born outside of the right window, you missed out, no matter how talented you were. Later generations of physicists included a good number of people who could have made the same sorts of contributions, had they been alive at the right time to make them.
What would a postdoc-aged R. B. Woodward (or Woodwardesque equivalent) work on today in chemistry? My guess is that Woodward himself was attracted to total synthesis not because (or only because) it was total synthesis, but because of the technical and intellectual challenges it offered. Remember, Woodward’s quinine synthesis was in 1944, at a time when no one was sure that such complex molecules could be made synthetically at all. It took a great deal of nerve to tackle these kinds of problems, and my guess is that a reincarnated Woodward might apply that boldness to things like (say) artificial photosynthesis or protein folding.
It’s hard to pick, though, because you really wonder how total synthesis of natural products looked to others back in the early 1940s (and thus what areas might look similarly inviting today). We just know a lot more than we did back then, which makes you wonder if any of the current frontiers can have the same character as the ones back then had. By now, it’s hard to think of a really outstanding problem that hasn’t had some work done on it, whereas back then so many things were waiting for the first footsteps to be made in them. I wonder if that’s what it seemed like at the time, though? If anyone knows of any articles in the journals from the 1940s on “outstanding problems in the field” or the like, I’d be very interested in seeing them.
At any rate, we’re not going to see something like the quantum mechanics revolution in chemistry. That, famously, was driven by the increasing divergence of experimental data with any of the existing theories. Quantized spectral lines, blackbody radiation, the photoelectric effect, Compton scattering – these and more indicated that something was seriously wrong with the assumptions of classical physics. I don’t think any such situation obtains today in chemistry; if there’s a major divergence of theory and experiment like those, I can’t think of it at the moment (and there certainly isn’t a collection of them like the ones in turn-of-the-20th-century physics). Admittedly, chemistry is a bit theory-deprived when compared to physics, but so is every science.
The biggest black boxes, to me, are over in biology now, and biology is even less susceptible to sweeping mathematically-reinforced theories than chemistry is. But then again, total synthesis as practiced by Woodward wasn’t theory-driven – he was ready to discover new reactions wherever they might be and push the limits of what we knew about chemical reactivity, in a relentlessly pragmatic way. There wasn’t a prediction that, say, “strychnine could not be synthesized” that Woodward overturned. (New theories might well suggest themselves out of the data obtained by these synthetic experiments, of course). So our hypothetical Woodward 2.0 might well have been attracted to biological problems, although given his well-known love of chemistry, perhaps he might have worked his way in through what we’d now call chemical biology. Heresy?
No matter what, though, I think that a young Woodward today would be out of phase with the course his actual career took. That was a perfect era for the total synthesis work he loved to do, but that’s not the situation today. I just can’t quite imagine Woodward looking around and saying “Well, OK, strychnine’s been done, so. . .strychnine dimer!” So I guess the question is whether he would have (or would have been able to) apply himself in a new field, which is my guess, or would have languished as a talented scientist born in the wrong era. You can only work on the problems that exist. . .