Elemental Discoveries - Issue 44(Click here if you're after the chemical nomenclature article)
Let's face it - chemistry is no news
by David Bradley
No news really is good news for the chemist. Chemistry rarely grabs the
headlines without it being bad press. When was the last time you saw
anything other than a scare story or a disaster just happened on the
pages of a newspaper? The word itself has almost become a pariah.
Chemical is the antithesis of natural the synthetic bad to mother
earth's good. Unless there is an explosion at a chemical factory with
accompanying noxious and smoky vapours mushrooming into the air or some
other disaster chemistry simply does not breach the editorial barrier.
It is relatively easy for the big game sciences to make an impact. An ancient comet looming ominously in the western skies as it plummets headlong towards the sun for the first time in several thousand years can make the news and one national UK newspaper even carried news of the 'COBE' experiment which measured the universe's background radiation as a front-page story. Biology only has to mention sex, or bodily parts and it gets a bold headline while the whole media were filled with awe just a few weeks ago by a woolly ovine creature described amazingly as unique by one paper despite it being a clone. The broadsheets and the tabloids fed on Dolly the Sheep for months albeit without the traditional mint sauce. The very medium in which we are communicating now - the Internet - if it were to disappear overnight would leave the newsprint manufacturers out of business with their stocks frozen by noon.
When column inches need to be filled with science it's far easier for an editor to convince the marketing and advertising executives of the value of one of the more user-friendly sciences and so chemistry generally misses out. Astronomy can always turn to the stars for advice and a flippant link with astrology will get it an extra banner in the tabloids. The trouble is, chemistry is boring and opaque, isn't it? Try persuading a non-chemist to even vaguely feign interest if you start talking about the double-decoupled two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy of some substituted polyaromatic hydrocarbon or other despite its potential benefits to cleaning up the atmosphere and you might as well attempt to convince them of the inherent interest in contemplating the thixotropic properties of an acrylic suspension of pigmented materials undergoing dehydration reactions in the mural state. (Watching non-drip paint dry is certainly not even as vaguely interesting as pollution.)
Chemistry might as well resign itself to being forever the boring scientific relation. Everyone knows chemistry-bleaches and pesticides, ozone damaging compounds and pharmaceuticals with all their undesirable qualities. Even though chemistry is all around us it is after all the substance of the universe and of life itself it just is not news unless it is bad. I can almost hear the hard-drives cranking up as the thousands of dedicated, hardworking and diligent chemists round the globe who have stayed with me so far spawn their e-mail software and begin a personal diatribe on my comments. Many of those may have sought to popularise the subject - and I must confess to being among their number - and increase that critically indefinable quantity public understanding and with some measure of success. The acid test though is to ask your next-door neighbours or better still your grandparents what they think of chemistry and they will either mention bleach or Bhopal and neither with much appreciation of the science that underlies and underlines everything.
So, how can the problem be overcome? Perhaps it cannot. But, chemistry does have its own big game just like astronomy and biology - it is just that chemical big games are a lot smaller. It is, however, this existence on the unimaginably tiny scale of things that might help bring chemistry a few spare column inches.
The simple almost alchemical ramblings of chemistry over the last couple of hundred years will seem like very small fry to the molecular architects - see even chemists cannot use the word any more - of the next millennium. Chemists will not be leaving their science to potluck as they have done in the past they will be . From artificial proteins - that perhaps even circumvent the need for cloning - to designer solids that can function as supercomputers the size of a paperback book. They will build miniature chemical plants that run with almost one hundred percent atom efficiency and still show a profit at the end of the fiscal year and tailor drugs that can be carried to a disease site directly reaching the parts other drugs cannot.
Some of the new chemistry has leaked back into our present century, the likes of superconducting ceramics for brain scanners, liquid crystals and electrically conducting plastics that will allow us to eradicate that most cumbersome of contemporary machinery the cathode ray tube and clothing materials that alert us to their exposure to ultra-violet irradiation are just a few of the chemical events for the headlines.
Molecular computation is also beginning to let the chemist perform engineering feats on the nanoscale. We are not simply talking the engineer's near microscopic wheels, cogs and pistons etched in silicon. The chemist will produce devices built from individual molecules with applications to empower.
Despite the scale, the tangibility of the new chemistry will be so inescapable that headline writers will not be able to avoid it. Forget comets and sheep - they come and go - chemistry is the real news.