Last week I gave the opening talk at the 10th Beilstein Symposium in Prien, Germany, a meeting focused on molecular engineering and control. This is a small, invitational meeting series — the kind where about half the participants are also speakers. What makes the Beilstein Symposiums unusual is their cross-disciplinary orientation. At this year’s meeting, topics ranged from single-molecule electron microscopy to molecular motors, modular polyketide synthases, and massively parallel quantum modeling of coupled molecular dynamics and electron transport.
Jean-Marie Lehn, the father of supramolecular chemistry, spoke on molecular self-organization by means of dynamic covalent chemistry [pdf], using reversible reactions to form molecules in an adaptive way. I see great promise in using these chemistries to direct and stabilize molecular folding; disulfide exchange and bonding in protein folding illustrates how this can work.
My talk described the contrasting natures of scientific inquiry and engineering design, using this perspective to examine prospects for building a field of molecular systems engineering on the base built by the molecular sciences.
A key takeaway message:
Judging whether a field of science is ready to support the development of a field of engineering is itself an engineering question.
In other words, although a field may present endless scientific unknowns, a subset of the available knowledge (supplemented with experiment) may suffice to solve engineering problems — but the only way to judge this is to define objectives and to search for solutions within the scope of existing knowledge, a problem that falls within the scope, not of inquiry, but of design.
Some scientists, of course, also excel as engineers. The molecular sciences need to recruit or develop more of them.