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Categories: Organic Chemistry >> Synthesis, Bio >> Biocatalysis, Natural Products

Molecules that changed the World

K. C. Nicolaou, Tamsyn Montagnon

Hardcover, 385 Pages
First Edition, 2008
ISBN: 978-3-527-30983-2


In this delightfully designed book, K. C. Nicolaou introduces the world's most important molecules and shows in a fascinating way the role certain compounds have to play in our everyday lives in the fields of drugs, aromatics or vitamins. For example, he tells the story of Aspirin, beginning 3,500 years ago in Egypt, through to its first synthesis and various applications with many entertaining facts and details. Printed in full color throughout and with its oversize format, this is a must for every chemist, natural scientist and anyone interested in the sciences.

Editorial Review

K. C. Nicolaou, the author of the "Classics in Total Synthesis" series, has collaborated with Tamsyn Montagnon as coauthor to produce a work that is unique in many respects. The graphic and color composition as well as the format are unusual, and are oriented toward readers who are interested in natural products and drugs as well as organic chemistry, but who are put off by the textbooks that are heavier on text with a more prosaic appearance. The pictures are artfully arranged, and occupy approximately half the page space. The color scheme is decent, although the orange-colored background of the cyclic compounds can certainly take some getting used to. In this way, the book is refreshingly different, and will pique the interest of a rather broad range of readers.

The actual content includes the following. The historical development of organic synthesis is acknowledged in many places. Additional focus is placed on chemists whose work is significant for the science of synthesis. The authors use numerous photographs to give these scientists a face, with which the reader learns how different walks of life or external factors were significant for a specific synthesis. This makes the scientists come to life, and makes the book exceptionally interesting to read. The critical reader will find the pictorial presentations to smack of hero worship. At the same time, the difficulties that underlie the development are given shorter shrift. For these reasons, "Molecules that changed the World" forms a counterpoint to the same publisher’s "The Way of Synthesis", by Hudlický und Reed. This latter work offers a different picture, with critical observations and a detailed analysis of the problems in the development of various synthetic pathways to a specific molecule. Where "The Way of Synthesis" presents the fierceness of the competition between research groups, even to the extent of detailed explanations of synthesis steps and how difficult was the optimization, the book by Nicolaou and Montagnon celebrates the important driving forces.

The fact that some of the drugs from pharmaceutical preparations are mentioned in connection with principles from molecular biology lends an additional dimension to the book. If this is a tribute to an industry that has co-financed the book, then this is a price that I am pleased to pay. The interested reader can make a better connection to a known blockbuster from the pharmaceutical industry than to a maritime natural product that is considered to be interesting from the synthetic tactics point of view by virtue of its structural complexity, but this tends to limit the target readership. The book coveys to readers the message that organic chemistry and synthetic tactics have developed over several hundred years, and that important natural products and drugs are associated with the individuals who were substantially responsible for the development of their synthesis. This lends a human and positive picture in society to an otherwise dry science. If the aim of the authors were to improve the perception of “chemistry” in society, then they have succeeded, and the attractive price will hopefully foster a wide dissemination of this book.

Enthusiasts and students with a serious interest in organic chemistry will find some interesting stories and explanations herein. The reader who is mainly interested in the historical development of the science will probably find the complexity of the molecules presented to be interesting, but nothing of further use. In any case, the book makes a wonderfully suitable gift for anyone who is interested in chemistry, and will serve to enhance that fascination and interest.


Chapter 1. Introduction: Atoms, Molecules & Synthesis.
Chapter 2. Urea & Acetic Acid.
Chapter 3. Glucose.
Chapter 4. Aspirin.
Chapter 5. Camphor.
Chapter 6. Terpineol.
Chapter 7. Tropinone.
Chapter 8. Haemin.
Chapter 9. Quinine.
Chapter 10. Morphine.
Chapter 11. Steroids & the Pill.
Chapter 12. Strychnine.
Chapter 13. Penicillin.
Chapter 14. Longifolene.
Chapter 15. Prostaglandins & Leukotrienes.
Chapter 16. Vitamin B12.
Chapter 17. Erythronolide B & Erythromycin A.
Chapter 18. Monensin.
Chapter 19. Avermectin.
Chapter 20. Amphotericin B.
Chapter 21. Ginkgolide B.
Chapter 22. Cyclosporin, FK506 & Rapamycin.
Chapter 23. Calicheamicin γ1I.
Chapter 24. Palytoxin.
Chapter 25. Taxol.
Chapter 26. Mevacor, Zaragozic Acids & CP Molecules.
Chapter 27. Brevetoxin B.
Chapter 28. Ecteinascidin 743.
Chapter 29. Epothilones.
Chapter 30. Resiniferatoxin.
Chapter 31. Vancomycin.
Chapter 32. Thiostrepton.
Chapter 33. Small Molecule Drugs.
Chapter 34. Biologics.