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I was immersed in the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Dallas this week, which meant that I could not catch more than wisps of the thrilling announcement from cosmology on Monday that could potentially confirm the prediction of inflation. If this turns out to be right it would indeed be a landmark discovery. My fellow Scientific American blogger John Horgan – who performs the valuable function of being the wet blanket of the network – prudently cautions us to wait for confirmation from the Planck satellite and from other groups before we definitively proclaim a new era in our understanding of the universe. As of now this does look like the real deal though, and physicists must be feeling on top the world. Especially Andrei Linde whose endearing reaction to a surprise announcement at his front door by a fellow physicist has been captured on video.

But as social media and the airwaves were abuzz with news of this potentially historic discovery, I was sitting in a session devoted to the behavior of water in biological systems, especially in and around proteins. Even now we have little understanding of the ghostly networks of water molecules surrounding molecules that allow them to interact with each other. We have some understanding of the thermodynamic variables that influence this interaction, but as of now we have to dissect these parameters individually on a case-by-case basis; this is still no general algorithm. Our lack of knowledge is hampered by both an overarching theoretical framework and computational obstacles. The water session was part of a larger one on drug design and discovery. The role of water in influencing the binding of drugs to proteins is only one of the unknowns that we struggle with; there are dozens of others factors – both known unknowns and unknown unknowns – which contribute to the behavior of drugs on a molecular level. We have made some promising advances, but there is clearly a long way to go.

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