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2019 Issue 3

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The magic of chemistry

The magic of chemistry

Victor Snieckus discusses the importance of fundamental science, the wonder of lithium, and the writing of Primo Levi.

[photo of Professor Victor Snieckus holding his copy of Primo Levi's book The Periodic Table]
Bernard Clark

Victor Snieckus holds his well-read copy of Primo Levi's The Periodic Table.

In 1998, Victor Snieckus was introduced to the work of chemist/author Primo Levi, when he was given a copy of Levi’s The Periodic Table by Stefano Suprechi, an Italian post-doctoral fellow working in his lab. Dr. Snieckus had just arrived at Queen’s that year to take up the Bader Chair in Organic Chemistry. The Periodic Table is a collection of short stories, each one named after a chemical element. In one sense, it is a very real re-telling of Levi’s own life, as a Jewish chemistry student in Italy in the Second World War, his work in the anti-Fascist partisan movement, subsequent imprisonment in Auschwitz, and his survival. In other ways, the book is an ode to the magic of chemistry. “Primo Levi gave chemists the ability to appreciate how their work is appreciated by others. When you read it, you read it like a novel,” says Dr. Snieckus. “There’s chemical terminology in it, yes, but it’s more psychology and philosophy more than anything else.”

His own copy of The Periodic Table is well-read and thoroughly annotated, showing scribbled notes on the flyleaf on Levi’s musings on boric acid and phosphorus, but also other takeaways from Levi. “Trustworthiness = virtue,” says one note. “That’s an element that he taught in his book,” says Dr. Snieckus, “and that we try to teach as well overall in science.”

…The previous lab, where I had tackled zinc, seemed an infantile exercise to us now, similar to when as children we had played at cooking: something, by hook or crook, in one way or another, always came of it, perhaps too little, perhaps not very pure, but you really had to be a hopeless case or pigheaded not to get magnesium sulfate from magnesite, or potassium bromide from bromine. Not here: here the affair had turned serious, the confrontation with Mother-Matter, our hostile mother, was tougher and closer. At two in the afternoon, Professor D., with his ascetic and distracted air, handed each of us precisely one gram of a certain powder: by the next day we had to complete the qualitative analysis, that is, report what metals and non-metals it contained… Report in writing, like a police report, only yes and no, because doubts and hesitations were not admissible…

There are a lot of similarities in the way that Primo Levi wrote about chemistry and the way that Victor Snieckus talks about it. Both are animated with the beauty and adventure of discovery and the universal applications of fundamental knowledge. Primo Levi embraced the doubt so frowned upon by his teacher, and thus opened himself up to new ways of knowing.

Some elements, such as iron and copper, were easy and direct, incapable of concealment; others, such as bismuth and cadmium, were deceptive and elusive. There was a method, a toilsome, age-old plan for systematic research, a kind of combined steamroller and fine-toothed comb which nothing (in theory) could escape, but I preferred to invent each time a new road, with swift, extemporaneous forays, as in a war of movement, instead of the deadly grind of a war of position. Sublimate mercury into droplets, transform sodium into chloride and identify it as trough-shaped chips under my microscope. One way or another, here the relationship with Matter changed, became dialectical: it was fencing, a face-to-face match. Two unequal opponents: on one side, putting the questions, the unfledged, unarmed chemist … on the other side, responding with enigmas, stood Matter, with her sly passivity, ancient as the All and portentously rich in deceptions, as solemn and subtle as the Sphinx.

It all begins with lithium

“It all begins with lithium!” Victor Snieckus declares. He has been working with the element for the last 40 years. “Why lithium for me? Lithium is a wonderful metal. It’s an element in organic chemistry that is used by everybody, in various forms. Lithium is in batteries and in your cell phone."

“In my lab, we use organic reagents that are lithium-based. We use these as reagents in synthesis. We use them to make molecules! And whatever we make is – hopefully – useful for new directions in science.”

It’s rare to see the results of one’s own fundamental science in production in the real world. But the Snieckus lab has seen some very satisfying practical outcomes. “It’s fundamental work, developing new methods of using lithium chemistry,” says Dr. Snieckus, “and yet we want to put it into practice. We’ve been lucky in that sense. Now there are four or five drugs on the market that are made using the methods that we discovered: an anti-inflammatory agent is one, an anti-HIV agent is one, and a very interesting one is an anti-fungal agent.” Not just doubling a recipe Lithium reagents can be utilized to make pharmaceutical and other compounds on a vast scale, something that takes delicate work and hard science. It’s not just a matter of doubling a recipe. “In my lab, our reactions are 20 milligrams. You can hardly see it in the palm of your hand. We work on a small scale. But if it works on a small scale, then you scale it up a bit, to two grams, say. And then you publish it. That’s it! And then it’s up to whoever who takes it to say ‘Ah, we can use this method to make Drug X.’

“They can scale it up to kilograms. And that’s a totally different process – that’s an engineering- chemistry collaboration. Chemists know the reaction; engineers know the technology associated with it. It’s done in a reactor the size of the atrium in Chernoff Hall."

One discovery from the Snieckus lab enabled the commercial production of a drug to combat HIV. “The methodology used to make that drug in kilogram quantities is a two-step process. And we discovered the reactions to make that happen!”

Tackling “Take-all”

Gaeumannomyces graminis is a crop disease that was nicknamed “Take-all” for the virulence with which it destroys wheat, oats, and barley. Since it was identified in 1852, the fungus has devastated grain crops across North America, Europe, and Australia. “So, the company Monsanto was screening molecules from academics,” says Dr. Snieckus, “and they approached me: ‘Do you have any interesting compounds you can send to us? We’d like to put them into bio-assays to screen for certain activity against certain diseases. We’ll pay you for it!’

As it so happened, he did have some interesting lithium-based molecules to share. “And later, I got a phone call: ‘Guess what? Your molecule is really active against a certain type of fungus that has never been destroyed before!’”

There was a lot more work to be done in the Monsanto lab before an anti-fungal agent was created, tested, and eventually brought to market. But one little molecule created by Victor Snieckus was the key that unlocked a cure for the fungus that had devastated grain crops worldwide for nearly 150 years.

“I’ll never forget seeing the results for the first time,” says Dr. Snieckus. “They said, ‘Vic, we’re going to show you what your work has done.’ They took me to a field and showed me the diseased plants and then the healthy plants. It was like a religious experience! That’s probably as close as I get to a religion.

It’s fundamental

“So, they asked me if I wanted my name on a patent. I said, ‘What’s the alternative?’ And the alternative was that they could give me grants – generous ones – for five years for my lab. What do I care about money for patents? So, I took the grants! This enabled us to increase our potential, our research for other projects. True,” he laughs, “sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and think, ‘Why didn’t I take the patent money?’ but I think I made the right decision. The group grew tremendously, our work went in new directions. Fundamental work is the work we’re supposed to be doing at a university. That’s our goal.

So, when that sort of thing happens, and you get funding with no strings attached – and NSERC does the same sort of thing – then we gain the freedom to ask ourselves, ‘What happens if we do this? What if we do that? And, so we explore! “I like students to be in that mindset, to allow themselves to make mistakes. Then they will say, ‘Yeah, let’s go! Let’s try it!' Being in graduate school, it’s the best time of their lives, in many ways, because they’re able to do that. They’re able to put their own minds to work, their own hands, put their technique and mental acuity together, and make things happen.”

For me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities that enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by fiery flashes, like those that had hidden Mount Sinai … I would watch the buds swell in spring, the mica glint in the granite, my own hands, and I would say to myself: "I will understand this, too, I will understand everything.

His enthusiasm and respect for the power of chemistry is infectious: “I’ve always told my students: ‘Think about it. You made a molecule! No one on the face of the Earth has seen this molecule before. You don’t know its properties. When you walk into the lab, make sure you are alert to possibilities.’”

Photo: Bernard Clark

 

Excerpts from The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, translation ©1984 by Penguin Random House LLC. Used by permission of Schocken Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

[cover image of the Queen's Alumni Review issue 3, 2019, showing art conservator Heidi Sobol with a painting by Rembrandt]