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On chemistry as the overlooked science [20070205|22:55]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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This is something I was working on a while back. I've edited it considerably but it still doesn't feel quite finished. I realize it's a bit bombastic, but after all, it is an opinion piece. Anyone care to weigh in?


I've found that the average layperson, asked to describe physical chemistry or chemical physics, is unable to provide a definition. At best, he or she confuses physical with physiological and assumes an implicit connection to medical science. I can't blame them. There are too many subdivisions of chemistry for a person without a bachelor's degree in the sciences to keep them straight.

Chemistry by itself is the middle child of the sciences. It lacks the romantic associations of astronomy, the flamboyant geniuses of physics, the obvious utility of biology. In the public mind, it is practical and necessary, but it is also solved. Its most familiar representative, the periodic table, is complete, or at least, it lacks only elements with lifetimes on the scale of femtoseconds, which are hardly conducive to the construction of compounds we encounter in our daily lives. Chemists have done little to rectify this impression.

Scientific research that has technological relevance, that fires the imagination and that is successfully championed by a memorable personality will be viewed as valuable to society. The study of chemistry has much of the first, but little of the latter two. It acquires those qualities through its association with the other sciences, particularly biology. It could be argued that the push for interdisciplinary research over the past few years has affected biology, physics and astronomy, but I don't think it has become as pervasive as it has in chemistry. Witness, for instance, the recent appearance of the field known as "biophysical organic chemistry."

It seems as if chemists are no longer able to justify their research without looking to the other sciences. I'd like to see chemistry restored to a position of equality with the other scientific disciplines. I want to hear people who study atomic and molecular reactions; measure or model energetic, dynamic and kinetic properties of molecules; or synthesize new compounds for medical or industrial use call themselves chemists. There comes a point when attempting to improve the accuracy of the definition of a field of study does nothing but confuse and obfuscate. And, possibly more importantly, bore people to death. I'm not sure what can be done to improve chemistry's public image, but I'm pretty sure that the proliferation of prefixes has done much to dilute the perceived value of chemistry.

[User Picture]From: shamroq
2007-02-05 23:24 (UTC)
Of all the sciences, Chemistry sounds like it would be the most likely to camwhore.
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[User Picture]From: vndictivesprite
2007-02-05 23:37 (UTC)
Hear hear! I have several things to say that are slightly applicable to this topic. Firstly, it seems like organic chemists are dying out. I mean, I just don't see as many graduate students who are "hardcore" organic chemists. Everyone wants to be bioorganic, or something like that. What's wrong with just wanting to synthesize molecules?

Also, I HATE HATE HATE HATE this, but about 85% of the time when I tell someone what i do "I'm an organic chemist", the next time they introduce me to someone or discuss what I do with me it becomes "This is my friend Sarah, she's a biologist or biochemist." No... no nonononono! I am not a fucking biologist, and I am not a fucking biochemist! I'm an organic chemist thankyouverymuch, and while I don't have anything against people in those fields, it is NOT what I do. Man, that really really really irks me.

I also don't like it when people feel like they should ask what I do for research just to be polite. People who don't really care aren't really going to listen, and even though I've dumbed it down considerably, are going to ask me a bunch of retarded questions. I want to smile at those people and say "Look, I know you don't really care, and since this is graduate level research lets just save ourselves 5 - 15 minutes of you looking like an idiot and just avoid the topic." (of course I would never do such a thing). I just get frustrated because I have been able to explain my research to non science types who genuinely did want to know what it is that I do.

Then sometimes when I tell someone what I do, they want to know what the point is. While my project does have many real world applications, I find it irritating to have to explain it to people. Most people think of the world in such macroscopic proportions that they have a hard time visualizing things on the kind of scale that scientists deal with on a daily basis. It's hard to teach someone that kind of perspective in a casual conversation. Obviously I don't mind discussing it with friends and family, but when it's someone I'm probably never going to see again and will forget what I've told them, I'm usually not as eager.

Sometimes I just want to lie and tell people that I work at Macy's, or maybe that I'm an exotic dancer.
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[User Picture]From: flexagain
2007-02-06 00:46 (UTC)
I'm hardly the average man on the street, but even as a physicist, I doubt I could necessarily distinguish or define all the subtleties or even the grosser elements of the many subdivisions that the various major sciences can combine into, and thence be subdivided into.

Having said that, to the man on the street, assuming they understand the concepts at all, subjects like physics are personified by big concepts such as the big bang, and the fundamental elements of the world, how things work, GUTs and similar concepts. Biology, as you say is possibly even more clearly related to medicine, which has a fairly direct relevance to most people. Chemistry holds a somewhat unsteady positions somewhere between the two. That may seem a little disingenuous, so I apologise, as a mere physicist, my vision is in some ways as blinkered as those whose experience of the formal science is more limited. It has to be said though, that physics has some obvious and "sexy" elements, even for the more esoteric fields. Most people have heard of aurora, even though most haven't seen them, even the sun itself is essentially a fusion reactor, whose exact details are fuzzy at best, but probably considered to be "mysterious". Biology has fields such as genetics which can be considered to be as complex and even scary as many of those in physics, but chemistry seems to suffer from being considered a mixture somewhere between the two, and hence not even a science in its own right.

I think some elements have inspired in the chemical sciences, I'll admit that possibly chemistry hasn't necessarily had people with quite the impact of other sciences, but concepts such a buckyballs, and cold fusion have championed chemists, albeit somewhat negatively in the case of Fleischmann and Pons. Possibly chemistry has suffered, almost being seen as "mere" engineering by many. The man on the street may only sees it as being the application of a field of engineering when concerned with petroleum or pharmacological preparation.

I'm not saying that I agree with this, I'll admit my ignorance of the subject is quite substantial, but I can see where the man on the street may be coming from, and most people couldn't define physics or biology with any degree of coherency, let alone explain how chemistry was distinct from either of those two.

As you say, I'm not sure I can suggest anything that defines more solidly the various sciences, and more relevantly how chemistry should be uniquely defined, but I do relate to the way that chemistry has somewhat unfairly fared, and more importantly is seemingly being persecuted with the loss and closure of many chemistry departments in further education establishments. This will impact on our future ability to push the subject forward, and whether you consider chemistry to be science or engineering, this has to be a very bad thing.

(My apologies if that is less than coherent, I'm more than a little drunk, so my faculties in respect of rigorous scientific argument are somewhat compromised!)
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From: ep_reductase
2007-02-06 01:28 (UTC)

I'm a little baffled by the 'chemistry is mundane' thing. I chose organic chemistry over molecular biology because I don't want to identify targets or run assays for molecules that other people make. I want to be the guy who designs the molecules.

I guess we don't have the really cool conceptual things like physics - though I would argue that electrons and all of their mystery are squarely in our realm.

Even if biology is more commonly associated with medical research in the public mind, drug discovery is the bleeding edge of pharmaceutical research. Until someone figures out how to administer proteins orally (and you can bet that someone would be a chemist) small molecules are the most viable way to influence biological processes in living organisms.

And if that's not sexy, I don't know what is.
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[User Picture]From: vndictivesprite
2007-02-06 02:06 (UTC)
Chemists are waaay sexy, although I suppose I'm biased.

And yay for organic chemistry!
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[User Picture]From: feylike
2007-02-06 02:06 (UTC)
do you find that the average layperson gets the impression that there are no Big Questions remaining in chemistry, while other sciences appear to have well-publicized Big Questions outstanding? is this perhaps a side effect of how science is taught in school? also, as a non-scientist with an engineering background, i find it difficult to unambiguously identify what i could call "chemistry". for example, where should i draw the line between chemistry and physics? is investigating the spectroscopic properties of some molecule best classified as chemistry or as physics?
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From: ep_reductase
2007-02-06 02:31 (UTC)
I do.

I propose a master list of Big Questions that are Chemistry.

1. Solutions to the Schrodinger Equation for multi electron systems
2. The Chemistry of small, self replicating systems (early 'life')
3. The whole 'how does biology actually work' question.

Of course, I probably botched the first one (its been awhile since my last P-Chem couse), and most laymen would probably assume the second two are 'biochemistry.' My qualifier would be that if you're pushing electrons around, you're doing organic chemistry, and that is the level of understanding that will translate into medical advances.

I'm sure we've got more questions than that though.
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[User Picture]From: vndictivesprite
2007-02-06 16:51 (UTC)
I've been coming back to this post and readng the comments because I find that they're very interesting. Yours struck a chord with me particularly, because my PI brings up this very topic on occaision. However when we talk about it with him, he mentions that there are a fair amount of Ph.D. level chemists out there who seem to think that there's really nothing left to discover, and that everything has already been done before. While everyone in my group disagrees with that, in some sense the scientific community is perpetuating that image.

Just look at funding... In order to get funded nowadays by say the NIH or NSF you need to have something that is going to produce results, something worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars that they're giving you. This doesn't leave much room for "high risk" research, which tends to be much more original. It seems like what we see a lot now is people doing research which is just like other peoples research, but with small changes made. The system isn't set up to support groundbreaking, original, fantastic discoveries, because I don't think they happen by looking at what everyone else is doing and then making small adjustments to custom fit it to your lab. People are wondering when the next big thing is going to come along, but when I sit down and chat about this stuff with my colleagues we seem to feel that it isn't as likely to happen with the system set up the way it is.

Then again, we have nothing better to do than to sit around and talk about chemistry when we really should be doing chemistry. We are master procrastinators.
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From: tdj
2007-02-06 02:28 (UTC)
Part of the problem is that engineering steals much of the sexy in the application stage. A stable non-toxic hydrophobic molecule is hard to sell to the layperson; self-cleaning windows aren't.

I'm not sure that chemistry has not promoted the part it plays in applications as well as some of the other disciplines. Something to do with how results get published in chemistry, maybe?

Then there's perceived value. Disciplines follow the money, and when chemistry started getting shorted, many figured that "biophysical organic nanochemistry" would bring in the dough. I predict that in the next ten years there will be a number of subdisciplines crawling back to the college of chemistry.
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From: tdj
2007-02-09 20:57 (UTC)
Speak of the devil: http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n2/full/nbt0207-255.html (if you don't have access, I can email it).

It's an article describing the creation of McGill's chemical biology program.
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[User Picture]From: supiluliumas
2007-02-06 03:26 (UTC)
Preach it sister! I can't count the number of times I've winced when I've mentioned archaeology and some otherwise not unintelligent layperson thinks I'm talking about digging up dinosaur bones.

If, in the midst of my attempt to explain the difference between archaeology and paleontology I make the mistake of bringing up anthropology, their eyes start to glaze over.
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[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2007-02-06 10:43 (UTC)
It's an interesting question. I have one friend who is a Professor of Chemistry (prof in the British rather than US sense). He works (primarily) on molecular Bose Einstein condensates. Most of his recent publications have been in jiurnals that I would consioder to be primarily physics oriented. Confusing really. Boundaries are tricky things though. Where does mathematical physics stop and theoretical physics begin?
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[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2007-02-06 12:59 (UTC)
I had another thought more or less courtesy of Douglas Adams. We all want to know the answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. If one is looking for a scientific answer then physics is where one goes for The Universe and biology for Life which leaves chemistry stuck without a big sexy question.
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