CAS saves scientists from 'reinventing the wheel'

Enrico Fermi, researching the atomic bomb in 1942, may have been lost without the above paragraph, written and forgotten 16 years before.

It was supplied in minutes by Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) and became an important link in a stalled ''Manhattan Project,'' the wartime effort to design and build the first nuclear weapon. The entry, condensed from a treatise written by four University of New Hampshire researchers experimenting with calcium and uranium, described a process with no practical application. And so it was ignored.

Except by CAS.

Since 1907 Chemical Abstracts Service has compiled chemistry's bible. It summarizes and indexes anything new, anywhere in the world, concerning new substances, new applications, or new syntheses in chemistry. Celebrating its 75 th year, CAS has become the most frequently used scientific data base in the world.

To finish the story, Fermi and American researchers at the University of Chicago struggled with uranium powder at the same time they felt a metallic lump might be better. By consulting CAS and locating the above experiment, Fermi and company avoided a potentially costly and time-consuming repetition. (The procedure described above was not a decisive factor in the atom bomb itself, but the knowledge oiled the slide to its completion.)

Though the word ''networking'' is now becoming journalistic vogue - describing a revolution of informational spidering that is weaving webs of planetary cooperation - CAS has for decades collected research findings from the global ''village'' into a single information base. From this, a whole world of researchers can save themselves money, time, and energy by finding out what's already been found out.

''You don't start a research project unless you look at Chemical Abstracts (CA),'' says Dale B. Baker, director of CAS, which publishes CA. ''Or else you run the risk of reinventing the wheel.''

A division of the American Chemical Society, Mr. Baker's firm is the only comprehensive abstracting and indexing service in chemistry outside of the Soviet Union. Therefore, it's heavily relied on by the scientific community of the free world.

Since the early days of science, experimenters consulted the writings and works of others for ideas relevant to their own work. With the burgeoning history and scope of scientific experiments, it is now impossible for scientists to keep up. CAS makes the task more manageable by reducing the vast literature of over 12,000 publications in 50 languages down to concise abstracts.

The first issue contained 502 abstracts. Now a weekly issue contains an average of more than 8,000. The original staff of four has grown to 1,200. And CAS has made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the world's longest index. That's its most recent five-year index which fills 57 volumes - almost 100,000 pages - and weighs 251 pounds.

There are no chemicals, laboratories, Bunsen burners, or chemists in white lab smocks within the two modern monoliths on the banks of the Olentangy River here. Sequestered just upriver from the Ohio State University football stadium, CAS is less well known to the general public. Yet for those who use the service, its fame extends around the planet.

What you do find here are about 300 full-time multilingual abstractors and translators selecting some 450,000 items a year for condensation. These include journal articles, patent documents, proceedings from meetings, symposia, and edited collections, technical reports, deposited documents, dissertations, and new books.

About three-quarters of the papers abstracted come from countries outside the United States. Ed Donnell, CAS public information director, points out that the most of the papers are published in English, Russian, Japanese, German, or French. But he adds that some are written in obscure languages such as Azerbaijani, Macedonian, or world languages such as Esperanto or Interlingua.

The concise English-language summaries are also indexed by subject and by all the chemical substances involved.

For a long time, CAS has used computers to help compile and keep track of its information. But recently it has started using computer technology to make data more available to users.

November 1980 saw the advent of CAS's new ONLINE system. From a computer terminal anywhere in the world, subscribers can now search a file of nearly 6 million known substances.

An even newer feature allows scientists - who hook into CAS computers in Columbus by telephone - to search for a substance without even knowing its name. They can describe the structural features of interest by drawing a ''picture'' of the substance's molecular structure.

This can be done most easily on CAS's own ''intelligent graphics terminal.'' Staff member J. W. Horizny describes the process: ''The structure diagram is constructed by selecting structural features, atoms, and bonds from a 'menu' and instructing the system to place them on the TV-like screen in the desired relationship.'' Since many new substances - drugs, cleaners, agricultural chemicals - are developed by modifying known substances, scientists can find how different molecules interact within other substances. This can help discover desirable effects and weed out undesirable side-effects without having to experiment. It can also open doors to new ways of thinking about research that has yet to be performed.

The service has been available for well over a year to subscribers who pay about $100 per search. That includes referral to any related abstracts published in CA. A search of the entire file of 6 million structures takes five minutes or less. ''Usually,'' says Horizny, ''the first answers are displayed for the searcher's inspection within 30 seconds.''

CAS ONLINE has several hundred clients, mostly chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers. The ONLINE service accounts for about 13 percent of CAS's total revenue.

The printed version of CA - the books sent each week to industrial and government laboratories, universities, and libraries around the world - still pulls in 70 percent of CAS's revenue. The yearly subscription price to CA in print is $6,200. The publication is self-supported with an annual budget of over publications.)

Eventually, Baker says, CAS would like to give ONLINE clients access to everything they'd ever want to know about chemistry, such as statistics on the economics of chemistry or surveys of current research projects. The abstracts themselves could be put on computer in the next two or three years - but CAS needs to consider the business side, since abstracts pull in the lion's share of revenue. They are also looking at home computers as one way of extending their scope.

Chemistry affects everything, says Baker, waxing philosophical about the CAS role in future research from nuclear physics and medicine to industry. ''We are a major part of the research behind the development of compounds that will improve your life and your grandchild's life. We're not in an industrial age. We're not in a space age, yet,'' he says. ''We're in an information age.''

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