IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
APRIL 2003
Volume 95, Issue 4
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…getting pleasure from reading the obituaries…

Archaeological Analog
Richard Mertens’s article, “Deep into the Landscape” (February/03), describing archaeological explorations in the Amuq Valley was fascinating. I was struck especially by one quotation from Jesse Casana, AM’00: “It’s fast and dirty and cheap. We can go out there and in a few weeks find stuff that challenges conventional wisdom. We find a ton of things that people never knew existed.”

Doing research in the mass spectrometry of organic compounds when the field was in its infancy, starting in 1946, I have had occasion to summarize my early experience, exploring the chemistry induced by electron impact on isolated molecules in the mass spectrometer, in much the same language used by Casana.

In the 1986 paper “Reminiscences of the Early Days of Mass Spectrometry in the Petroleum Industry” I wrote: “Because so very little was known at the time I started, my choice of specific problems to address or of specific compounds to work with was wide open. Under the circumstances, I was able to take the easy and economical route of formulating problems for investigation to take advantage of available compounds, whatever their source. This approach amounts to attacking a huge jigsaw puzzle by making many independent starts wherever one can spot a few pieces to fit together and hoping that connecting links will turn up once enough small portions have been assembled. In fact, between work in our laboratory and elsewhere, this is precisely the way the field has developed.” After our first few publications I started receiving frequent requests from academic researchers for help with mass spectrometry, especially isotopic analysis of organic compounds containing one or more isotopic labels. Working with these materials, I found that virtually every new spectrum of a labeled compound yielded more surprises. Thus we also found “a ton of things that people never knew existed.”

I would expect that people working in relatively unexplored areas in other fields would have similar experiences.

Seymour Meyerson, SB’38
Asheville, North Carolina

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