A Crusade Against the Quest for the Holy Grail

by Bethany Halford (“BH”) with an Introduction and Commentary
by Steve Nadis (“SN”) Followed by a Rejoinder by the Aforementioned BH

EDITOR’S NOTE: The unusual format and to some degree the content of this article, including personal and even interpersonal commentary, reflects the persistent, entangled nature of the subject.

Notes Of A Humble Grail Watcher Regarding New Hope On The Horizon, by Steve Nadis (“SN”)

For the past 15 years, I’ve been tilting at windmills bearing the name “Holy Grail”—words that are all too familiar in the scientific literature and other realms of hyperbolic prose. I have made it my life’s work to scour scientific periodicals for references to said term in order to show the extent to which it has been misused, overused, and abused, with the ultimate hope being that scientists and science journalists alike will show more restraint in the future when describing “revolutionary new breakthroughs” or lofty, elusive goals not yet attained.

This is not a field for those eager to get rich quick. There’s not much money to be had in the grail-hunting enterprise, nor much glory to be found either—except in extremely rarified circles among those in the know. Indeed, most civilians fail to recognize the value of my preoccupation, nor do they consider it a valid occupation or even an avocation.

For most of this time, it has been a solitary pursuit laced with private curses, ad hominem remarks (at my own expense), and self-congratulatory chuckles. I even dislocated my shoulder once patting myself on the back. Putting it in literary terms, I have been Don Quixote without Sancho Panza. In dance terms, I have been Fred Astaire without Ginger Rogers. And in terms of refreshing alcoholic beverages that are perfect for the casual get-together or formal office party, I have been Martini without Rossi. (Or Rowan without Martin, or Martin without Lewis, or Lewis without Clark).

But slowly things have been changing for the better, perhaps a result of frequent announcements regarding the grail in this very journal, the Annals itself.1 They say it takes a village, and although a village is not taking shape here, a community is. In the past couple of years, it seems that some people are finally “getting it”—people like Charles Petit, who wrote in the Knight Science Journalism Tracker in 2007: “What is it with any and all holy grails as ever-potent catnip for metaphor-hungry science and medical writers? How is it that French poetry, British Arthurian literature, and the romance of knights off on quests—one that not even Monty Python’s satire could cure—took such deep root in the imaginations of some writers in their youths (and of their sources)?”

Petit’s tirade was spurred by a BBC news story that described the development of artificial blood vessels as “one of the holy grails of regenerative medicine.” Is it, Petit asked, “just one of several such grails? And this in just one subspecialty? Well, one takes one’s holy grails where one finds them. Somebody should do a survey. There must be scads of them. How many holy grails does it take to make them, you know, plain old grails?”2

In 2008, Guardian columnist Tim Radford wrote: “British journalists have invoked the holy grail more than 1,000 times in the last 12 months. I have, almost certainly, evoked the same divinely-touched chalice, rightly celebrated in Arthurian legend, in some inappropriate context. We are all guilty... Grail imagery occurs with astonishing frequency in the scholarly press. Somewhere in the medical literature, I suspect, lurks a paper about the holy grail of hip replacement.”3 (And, yes, Mr. Radford, you are correct. But there is not one paper about the holy grail of hip replacement, my cher comrade in arms. There are many.)

Which brings us to 2009 and Bethany Halford’s rousing call to arms, “A Crusade Against Holy Grails,”4 which I consider to be the Common Sense of the grail-bashing genre and a signal that the world is finally waking up to this long-overlooked issue, the proverbial elephant in the room. Halford’s piece will be summarized shortly, but before getting to that I’d like to say how gratifying it is for me to find someone else taking up what I call “the crusade against the crusade” or, alternatively, “the quest against the quest.”

Halford’s research has focused on the chemical literature, particularly the publications of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Her essay appears in Chemical and Engineering News, the glossy ACS magazine for which she works—a publication, I might add, that has taken the extraordinary measure of banishing the term “holy grail” from its pages since 2003, when the editor-in-chief at that time put her foot down and said (in so many words): “Enough.”5

That was a courageous step and one that should be emulated by other journals. In other fields. In other places of the world. But before I dislocate my other shoulder again by attempting to pat myself on the back too forcefully, I should point out that there’s still a long way to go.

Idly grabbing papers on my desk, I come across phrases such as the following:

• “the Holy Grail of lasers” and “the ‘Holy Grail’ of energy weapons”6

• “the holy grail for a rocket enthusiast without much money”7

• “the Holy Grail of fisheries management”8

• “a Holy Grail of hot dogs in Boston”9

• “The holy grail is that it would be like getting a root canal…you can go to work the next day.”10

I must say, reading lines like these, tossed out so cavalierly, makes me feel like I’ve just had a root canal. It hurts me. And if it hurts you too, I feel your pain. I honestly believe that our society needs some respite, and healing, from the constant barrage of grail attacks. Fortunately, inspirational treatises like Halford’s just may show the way.

A Crusade Against Holy Grails (abridged version), by Bethany Halford (“BH”)

Lab coat, goggles, gloves—this is the equipment I expect a chemist to wear while embarking on a scientific quest. But I’m beginning to wonder whether more of us ought to be sporting swords, shields, and chain mail, what with the alarming proliferation of “holy grails” in the chemistry literature.

To see what set me off on this track, one need look no further than a stack of 2008 ACS journals, where the casual reader will be besieged by phrases such as: “the holy grail of photoelectrochemistry,” “the holy grail in small molecule-RNA binding,” and “the holy grail of room temperature Ullmann condensation reactions.”

It started innocently enough, in a 1968 edition of the ACS journal, Industrial & Engineering Chemistry, when Associate Editor D. H. Michael Bowen penned an editorial that described the excitement he felt upon following the adventures of a professor in his “pursuit of research’s Holy Grail.” To Bowen’s mind, this pursuit was even more exciting than memorizing dull facts—if you can believe that—though he had no idea of the literary tsunami he was about to unleash. (Note: Might “tsunami” become the next “holy grail”?)

Ten years later, Stephen J. Lippard, then at Columbia University but currently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put the first holy grail into a research article in an ACS journal when he wrote a paper on how platinum antitumor complexes interact with polynucleotides and kill cancer cells. “As with the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the joy thus far has been in the searching,” Lippard wrote.11

Since then, holy grails in chemical research have been steadily on the rise. Including Lippard’s, three holy grails appeared in ACS journals in the 1970s, and five could be found in the 1980s. During the 1990s, 39 research articles in ACS journals made mention of a holy grail, and since 2000, 169 research articles invoked the sacred goblet. A SciFinder search shows this trend of chemists gravitating toward grails holds true for non-ACS journals as well.

Now, I was always under the impression that there was only one Holy Grail—the legendary vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper that was later sought by Arthurian knights. But the multiplicity of holy grails in the chemistry literature suggests that they are about as common as plastic beer cups at Sci-Mix. And am I the only one to think it’s strange to equate a scientific endeavor with an object of religious mysticism?

Officially, the phrase is banned here at C&EN (although holy grails have a funny way of insinuating themselves into science writers’ copy regardless of such bans). Were I to tell my colleagues that we should be writing about a research finding because it is a holy grail of something or other, the response would likely be something impolite that I cannot print or, if put more charitably, something like this: “A holy grail? Why? Did someone find another one?”

In the course of my grail hunting for this story, I contacted several prominent chemists who’d referred to a “holy grail” in a publication at some point in their careers. I asked whether they now felt guilty about it and thought, as I do, that the phrase is a bit, shall we say, overworked. Knowing what they know now, would they have done the same thing all over again?

The most interesting response came from Harvard University’s George M. Whitesides, who was coeditor of a special “Holy Grails in Chemistry” issue of Accounts of Chemical Research12. “If one is into semantics or semiotics, there is no excuse for using ‘holy grail’ in chemistry,” Whitesides says. “There are fields that have single, unified objectives, which, if reached, would revolutionize the field. I don’t think that there is a single thing that would turn all of chemistry on its ear, since one of chemistry’s strengths is its diversity.”

But I must begrudgingly admit that Whitesides also made a good case for not discarding holy grails entirely. “’Holy grail’ has come to mean ‘solution to a really big problem.’ The idea that one size fits all is, I think, unfair to the range of opportunities in chemistry, but it is at least clear what the phrase means,” he points out. “If two words give a sense of expansiveness and ambition and centrality, why not use them? ‘Holy grail’ means something to every chemist and to most others. It may mean something different to every chemist, but there are worse confusions. Better multiple grails than none.”

Commentary (by SN): Perhaps it comes as no surprise that I like all aspects of the article (with the possible exception of the last sentence, which I don’t quite understand13). I especially like the part (not contained in the abridged version) that refers to yours truly as “the chief grail hunter in all of science.”

Rejoinder (by BH): I had no idea grail bashing could be so fun. I can’t wait to tell the gals in my knitting circle, who are always looking for a new hobby.
1 See, for instance, Steve Nadis. “In Search of the Holy Grail.” AIR, March–April 1996, pp. 4–6; Steve Nadis. “The Holy Grail Redux.” AIR, November–December 2001, pp. 6–10l; Steve Nadis, “In Search of Astronomy's Holy Grail,” AIR, May–June 2006, pp. 18–23.

2 Charles Petit, “BBC: Artificial Blood Vessels Coming Along, ‘a Holy Grail of Regenerative Medicine,’” Knight Science Journalism Tracker,http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/?m=200712, December 26, 2007.

3 Tim Radford, “Prosaic Postcards from the Edgy,” Education Guardian, March 5, 2008.

4 Bethany Halford, “A Crusade Against Holy Grails,” Chemical & Engineering News, vol. 87, no. 13, March 30, 2009.

5 I have uttered that word too, but my saying it wasn’t enough.

6 Noah Schachtman. “Navy Pushing Laser ‘Holy Grail’ to Weapons Grade.” Danger Room, Wired Blog Network, http://blog.wired.com/defense/2008/03/battlefield-str.html, March 26, 2008.

7 John Johnson Jr., “Rocket Scientists, Car Customizers Flock to Buy Used NASA parts,” Boston Sunday Globe, April 8, 2007, p. A28.

8 “Study Looks at Ways to Sustain Lobster Fishery,” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution press release, July 5, 2006.

9 Jenn Abelson, “Winning Season and Seasoning…,” Boston Globe, April 1, 2009, p. 1.

10 Mary Carmichael, “Scar-free Surgery.” Boston Globe, January 7, 2008, p. C1.

11 Stephen J. Lippard, Accounts of Chemical Research, vol. 11, no. 211, 1978.

12 George Whitesides. Accounts of Chemical Research, vol. 28, no. 91, 1995.

13 Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I sometimes wonder whether that single sentence undermines everything that we’re trying to do here, everything I stand for, as well as everything we’ve accomplished so far. Despite that minor reservation, I wouldn't change a word.


The article above is from the May-June 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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To me, this seems to be a silly issue. It is important, I think, to recognize that the people who are using this literary phrase do not believe the Holy Grail exists, and are just using it as Dr. Whitesides said.

Is the phrase overused? Of course it is. Is it used more than hackneyed Don Quixote references? Maybe. Besides, what is more useless than internet literary critics?
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I'm guessing that most of the people who use the phrase have no idea what the Holy Grail is; to them the phrase is simply a way to describe the unobtainable. What they don't realize is that *you* don't find the Grail, *it* finds you. See my my complete explanation at http://pininforthefjords.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/quest-for-the-holy-grail/
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Any anthropology bones called Eve
any reference book referred to as "The....Bible"
and finally physicists are alway searching for the God Particle
So why do empirical scientists so often use Old Testatment references? It only makes the fundamentalist upset. It makes the science appear less data driven and it makes it seem like some odd made up theory.
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