Chemistry steps out of the shadows

Rick Bowmer / AP file

University of Oregon chemistry professor Julie Haack incorporates the principles of “green chemistry” into her classes.

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, and in honor of the occasion, the journal Nature reflects deeply upon the field’s long-running image problem.

Chemists often find them overshadowed by biologists on one side of the scientific spectrum, and by physicists on the other side. That brand confusion extends even to the event that provides the rationale for celebrating chemistry this year: The United Nations is turning its spotlight on chemists this year to mark the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering radium and polonium. But that was actually her second Nobel. Her role in unraveling the mystery of radioactivity won her a share of the prize in 1903 … in the physics category.

The discipline is getting even more tangled up in the 21st century. “Chemistry is often central, with principles and discoveries that enable work in other subjects,” Nature reports. “Its ability to react and rearrange matter for applications such as energy storage, new materials and more efficient industrial processes is vital for modern technology. Yet often, other disciplines such as materials science emerge as the public faces of such successes.”

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In one of the articles released today, Nature assesses the status of the “green chemistry” field — which aims to replace toxic industrial chemicals with more environmentally friendly alternatives. Another report looks at the promise as well as the problems associated with commercializing new carbon concoctions such as fullerenes, nanotubes and graphene. (Research into the creation of graphene won researchers a Nobel Prize last year … again, in the physics category.)

Like any scientific discipline, chemistry has its down side: It’s the foundation for the production of meth and crack cocaine, as well as more beneficial products such as artificial sweeteners and synthetic fabrics. (Um, they are beneficial, aren’t they?) One of Nature’s commentaries is from synthetic chemist David Nichols, who agonizes over how his creations have been turned into “ecstacy” and other destructively alluring designer drugs.

Harvard’s George M. Whitesides and MIT’s John Deutch call for “fundamental change” in the way chemistry is done — marked by a shift of focus toward practical challenges, a reorganization of academic disciplines (including a merger of chemistry and chemical engineering) and the inclusion of non-science subjects (such as economics, corporate financing and manufacturing) in the curriculum.

You’ll find much, much more in Nature’s special section, including a fresh look at one of my favorite skeptical chemists, Robert Boyle (no doubt a very, very distant relative). There’s more to come: Nature plans to keep its special report updated. The Chemistry 2011 website has a whole year’s worth of events and activities lined up.

And if chemistry isn’t your cup of tea, you don’t have to sit the whole year out: 2011 is also the International Year of Forests, World Veterinary Year and the International Year for People of African Descent.

More about chemistry:

* Chemistry you can dance to * ‘Forgotten genius’ profiled on public TV * Chemists win Nobel for carbon-bonding method * Better living through palladium

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