The International Year Of Chemistry

This year is being celebrated as the International Year of Chemistry, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Nobel prize award to Madam Curie, who discovered Radium and Polonium. As the chemist fratenity celebrates, a few thoughts crossed my mind. How many people outside the community of Chemists know about this celebration? Not many – I would guess. This is pretty much in keeping with the tradition of Chemists to keep a low profile. CHEMISTRY as a field loves to avoid limelight, although their contributions over the centuries have been spectacular or even revolutionary. Contrast this with fields like Cosmology, Medicine, Biology or Electronics or New/Advanced materials etc. Achievements of these disciplines are well advertized and therefore well known to the laymen. On the contrary, Chemists do not claim credit even when it is genuinely theirs. For instance, Advanced materials development, which appears very frequently in the news owes its achievements to advances in Chemistry. Similarly without a proper foundation in chemistry, there can be no biochemistry or biology or medicine. But then the above disciplines are the public faces enjoying all the limelight among the laymen.

In the history of Chemistry, one can easily count the number of Chemists who were flamboyant. I can only think of two great chemists in this context. In the recent times, it was Linus Pauling, the Nobel Laureate, who was quite popular and in some sense controvercial too. His seminal work led to the fundamental understanding of Chemical Bond, which earned him the Nobel Prize. As many would know, he also became a controversial figure for his rather exaggerated claims on the efficacy of Vitamin C for curing Common Cold. (He is believed to have tried it on himself consuming 1 to 2 grams of Vitamin C every day). He was such a charismatic figure that even today some doctors prescribe Vitamin C for curing cold, in spite of the fact that there is no clear clinical evidence regarding its efficacy.

Going back in time to the 18th Century, Sir Humphrey Davy(a well known British Chemist)was equally flamboyant. He discovered Nitrous oxide, which is famous as the ‘laughing gas’. Davy was very eloquent in talking about Science and was fond of giving popular lectures on Chemistry. His lectures in Royal Society attracted the attention of the laymen as well as the British aristocracy. He initially experimented inhaling nitrous oxide on himself before trying it out on his aristocratic friends like the great Poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. This gas was described by many as the elixir of life as it gave an ‘out of the world’ intoxicating experience to those who inhaled. Eventually this gas was used by surgeons as the first ever anesthesia known to the medical world.
Sir Davy, of course, is better remembered today for his famous Davy’s Safety Lamp which saved the lives of thousands of coal miners during his time.

Looking back at the history of Chemistry, like all Sciences, Chemistry is also responsible for creative destruction (to borrow an expression from the famous Economist Joseph Schumpeter)as well as destructive creation. As one US comedian(Adam Sandler)put it, “Chemistry is good when you make love with it.Chemistry is bad when you make crack with it.”
I don’t have to give examples of destructive creation because they are so well advertised and documented. I should, however, give some examples of creative contributions for the benefit of the laymen:
Mining, Fertilizer, Oil refining and now alternative energy sectors(wind,solar,biomass etc), all depend critically on the innovations in Chemistry. The Personal Care industry owes its very existence to the field of Chemistry. One could go on and on without exhausting the contributions of Chemists and Chemistry.

How can anyone deny such a science its due? It’s time that Chemists walked with a sense of pride and started announcing to the world some of their revolutionary achievements at least during this year dedicated for celebration of its success stories.

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Published in: on August 7, 2011 at 9:19 am  Leave a Comment  

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