Motion and Tranquility

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-05-02-2006, Volume 30, Issue 5

From the most frenetic conference season in recent memory, trying to distill perspective from mental snapshots of Interphex, Wisconsin, and BIO 2006.

The spring and fall conference seasons are always a blur, and this March and April have been blurrier than most. If, as William Wordsworth said, poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, then perspective is motion recollected in immobility—and immobility has been in short supply around here lately. What I have to show so far is a three-inch-high stack of business cards, a slightly shorter stack of taxi and credit card receipts (which I really must file before the enforcers from accounting come by with their rubber truncheons), and a collection of mental snapshots.

Douglas McCormick

Snapshot: Presenting our first GenerationNext Awards to Sandy Cope, Derek Ung, and Chris Watts at Interphex (March 21–23 in New York; see this month's "In the Field" for more). I had the satisfaction of meeting and introducing these three under-35 scientists and engineers who already have made a mark on the industry and show great promise of becoming leaders in the field in the years to come.

Snapshot: Zipping from the morning awards ceremony down to Bethesda, Maryland, for a surprise dinner honoring Pharmaceutical Technology Editorial Advisory Board Member Theodore H. Meltzer on his 90th birthday.


The symmetry of this—spending the morning of the first day of spring with smart, young rising stars and the evening with a brilliant, cultured nonagenarian who is still making vigorous contributions—casts a glow that still lingers.

Snapshot: Yoshito Kishi, Leob Professor of Chemistry at Harvard, at the SAFC Organic Chemistry Symposium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, describing asymmetric syntheses of large chiral organic compounds like halichondrins (which disrupt mitosis by interfering with microtubule formation) and palytoxin (whose 1995 synthesis, coping with 70 chiral centers, is sometimes called the greatest feat of organic chemistry).

Snapshot: The mammoth opening reception at Chicago's Navy Pier for BIO 2006 (April 10–12), with most of the meeting's 19,000 attendees shared out among three huge rooms. In the main hall, a conductor in white-spangled tails and top hat perched on a 30-ft tower in the middle of the room to simultaneously lead three different ensembles on raised bandstands in distant reaches of the cavernous space—a blues quartet, a rock trio, and a string quintet (all women in black dresses). On the floor below, the dense crowd eddied around tables piled with ethnic delicacies below, and dancers in Bob Fosse's Chicago costumes tapped on stages above. When the strings launched into the opening bars of Aaron Copeland's Appalachian Spring (the part with the Shaker hymn that starts "'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free . . ."), the incongruity between the tune and the lavish party and gold-camp atmosphere (in an industry that is still losing billions) struck me like an open hand, and I left.

Snapshot: Again at BIO 2006, listening to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt describe the rosy future of personalized medicine (something I've been writing about since the late 1980s) and wondering why the detailed scenarios seemed so unconvincing.

Snapshot: Again in Chicago, in the same auditorium, but on another day, watching former president Bill Clinton on the Jumbotron. Clinton has an odd power to imbue dry facts with compassion, dull statistics with a call to action. Here is some of what he told the crowd that seemed to lurch from one Lucullan reception to another:

"This interdependent world—that enabled all of you to come here to this magnificent convention center, well clothed, well fed, depending on systems that work to give you clean water and good food and the lights to come on and the microphone to work—is totally alien to about half the world.

Keep in mind, half the world's people live on less than $2.00 a day; a billion people live on less than $1.00 a day; a billion people go to bed hungry every night; a billion people never get a clean glass of water in their entire lives; ...[each year] ten million kids die of completely preventable childhood illnesses that claim no lives in America...; and one in four of all the deaths on earth this year, all the deaths including from natural disasters, wars, accidents, crime, heart attacks, stroke, cancer, everything else in the whole world, one in four deaths will come from AIDS, TB, Malaria and infections related to dirty water, principally cholera and diarrhea-related illnesses. [Of] the three million people that will die from those diseases, eighty percent of them are 5 years old or younger."

After all of the things I've seen, it's this one thing that lingers, the thing that all the business cards and the miles and the science and the striving really stand for: the end of suffering, and the coming of the gift to be simple and free.

Douglas McCormick is editor in chief of Pharmaceutical Technology,