Henry Rzepa's Blog Chemistry with a twist

December 20, 2019

L-Malic acid: An exercise in conformational analysis impacting upon optical rotatory dispersion (ORD).

Filed under: Chiroptics — Henry Rzepa @ 9:49 am

My momentum of describing early attempts to use optical rotation to correlate absolute configuration of small molecules such as glyceraldehyde and lactic acid with their optical rotations has carried me to L-Malic acid (below labelled as (S)-Malic acid).


December 9, 2019

Sign inversions in optical rotation as a function of wavelength (ORD spectra)

Filed under: Chiroptics,Interesting chemistry — Henry Rzepa @ 1:04 pm

I have been discussing some historical aspects of the absolute configuration of molecules and how it was connected to their optical rotations. The nomenclature for certain types of molecules such as sugars and less commonly amino acids includes the notation (+) to indicate that the specific optical rotation of the molecule has a positive (rather than a negative) value. What is rarely mentioned is the implicit wavelength at which the rotation is measured. Historically polarimeters operated at the so-called sodium Fraunhofer D-line (588.995nm, hence the name [α]D) and only much more recently at the mercury e-line (546.073nm). The former was used for uncoloured organic molecules, since it was realised early on that colour and optical rotation did not mix well. Here I take a closer look at this aspect by constructing the hypothetical molecule shown below.


December 7, 2019

What effect do explicit solvent molecules have on calculated optical rotation: D-(“+”)-Glyceraldehyde.

Filed under: Chiroptics,Interesting chemistry — Henry Rzepa @ 9:40 am

In this series of posts on optical rotations, I firstly noted Kirkwood’s 1937 attempt to correlate the optical rotation of butan-2-ol with its absolute configuration. He had identified as essential knowing the relative orientation (the term conformation was not yet in common use) of the two methyl groups (the modern terms are gauche vs anti) and also that of the hydroxyl group, noting that anisotropy from this group could influence his result (he had assumed it was linear, or axially symmetric). I then looked at D-(+)-glyceraldehyde, noting that this species itself has a strongly negative rotation and that it is the hydrated diol that results in a positive rotation and hence the (+) designation. Here I take another look at this latter system to see what effect adding explicit water molecules to the unhydrated form of glyceraldehyde might have on its computed rotation, on the premise that strong hydrogen bonds can also contribute anisotropy to the system.


December 6, 2019

The (+) in D-(+)-glyceraldehyde means it has a positive optical rotation? Wrong!

Filed under: Chiroptics,Historical — Henry Rzepa @ 5:05 pm

Text books often show the following diagram, famously consolidated over many years by Emil Fischer from 1891 onwards. At the top sits D-(+)-glyceraldehyde, to which all the monosaccharides below are connected by painstaking chemical transformations.


November 30, 2019

Prediction preceding experiment in chemistry – how unlucky was John Kirkwood?

Filed under: Chiroptics,Historical — Henry Rzepa @ 9:01 am

Some areas of science progressed via very famous predictions that were subsequently verified by experiments. Think of Einstein and gravitational waves or of Dirac and the positron. There are fewer well-known examples in chemistry; perhaps Watson and Crick’s prediction of the structure of DNA, albeit based on the interpretation of an existing experimental result. Here I take a look at a what if, that of John Kirkwood’s prediction of the absolute configuration of a small molecule based entirely on matching up the sign of a measured optical rotation with that predicted by (his) theory.


April 2, 2012

A golden age for (computational) spectroscopy.

I mentioned in my last post an unjustly neglected paper from that golden age of 1951-1953 by Kirkwood and co. They had shown that Fischer’s famous guess for the absolute configurations of organic chiral molecules was correct. The two molecules used to infer this are shown below.


March 13, 2012

Confirming the Fischer convention as a structurally correct representation of absolute configuration.

I wrote in an earlier post how Pauling’s Nobel prize-winning suggestion in February 1951 of a (left-handed) α-helical structure for proteins[1] was based on the wrong absolute configuration of the amino acids (hence his helix should really have been the right-handed enantiomer). This was most famously established a few months later by Bijvoet’s[2] definitive crystallographic determination of the absolute configuration of rubidium tartrate, published on August 18th, 1951 (there is no received date, but a preliminary communication of this result was made in April 1950). Well, a colleague (thanks Chris!) just wandered into my office and he drew my attention to an article by John Kirkwood[3] published in April 1952, but received July 20, 1951, carrying the assertion “The Fischer convention is confirmed as a structurally correct representation of absolute configuration“, and based on the two compounds 2,3-epoxybutane and 1,2-dichloropropane. Neither Bijvoet nor Kirkwood seem aware of the other’s work, which was based on crystallography for the first, and quantum computation for the second. Over the years, the first result has become the more famous, perhaps because Bijvoet’s result was mentioned early on by Watson and Crick in their own very famous 1953 publication of the helical structure of DNA. They do not mention Kirkwood’s result. Had they not been familiar with Bijvoet’s[2] result, their helix too might have turned out a left-handed one!



  1. L. Pauling, R.B. Corey, and H.R. Branson, "The structure of proteins: Two hydrogen-bonded helical configurations of the polypeptide chain", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 37, pp. 205-211, 1951. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.37.4.205
  2. J.M. BIJVOET, A.F. PEERDEMAN, and A.J. van BOMMEL, "Determination of the Absolute Configuration of Optically Active Compounds by Means of X-Rays", Nature, vol. 168, pp. 271-272, 1951. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/168271a0
  3. W.W. Wood, W. Fickett, and J.G. Kirkwood, "The Absolute Configuration of Optically Active Molecules", The Journal of Chemical Physics, vol. 20, pp. 561-568, 1952. http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.1700491

Powered by WordPress