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Chemistry in the Postmodernistic Era

Nature 442, 486(3 August 2006) | doi:10.1038/442486b; Published online 2 August 2006

What's in a name?

Chemistry is here to stay.

In this week's issue, prominent chemists identify six important questions currently being asked on the frontiers of their field. The calibre of the selection demonstrates clearly that the discipline remains alive with fresh ideas and challenges.

However, chemistry's poor public image, dogged by echoes of industrial pollution and the pejorative connotations of the word 'synthetic', has led to suggestions that it rebrand itself with a sexier label — molecular sciences, perhaps. The idea is not just public-relations flannel: it is also a response to the undoubted movement of the discipline's centre of gravity since Johann Hartmann took the first university chair of chemistry at Marburg in Germany in 1609.

There are plenty of precedents. In recent decades, many geologists have become 'Earth scientists', some metallurgists are now materials scientists, and biology departments have splintered into all manner of subdivisions. Most of these renamings are down to more than fashion; they reflect a genuine shift in emphasis.

But there are strong arguments that 'chemistry' remains the best word to describe the sciences of matter and its transformations. Far from being an endangered subject, chemistry is a victim of its own success. It has given us the tools and concepts, for example, to probe questions in the life sciences that were previously impenetrable.

As a label, 'biochemistry' fails to do justice to this encroachment of chemistry into biology, being associated primarily with the study of enzyme kinetics. Similarly, chemists can now design materials from the atomic level upwards, whether they work in departments of chemical engineering, polymer science or materials. Chemists may even give electronic engineers a run for their money in creating self-assembling circuits and memories.

The problem is that so little of the credit falls on chemistry itself. 'Chemical biology', for example, presents the chemical aspect as an adjunct to another discipline, while a great deal of inventive chemistry comes under the umbrella of nanotechnology. This tendency is already reflected in university reshuffles, at Harvard and elsewhere, that might displace parts of chemistry to other departments.

Such rebranding is not the way to secure chemistry's position as an independent discipline. Neither will that be achieved merely by loudly trumpeting chemistry's considerable achievements. Chemistry needs, instead, to reassert itself as a core scientific discipline — albeit one that is inherently interdisciplinary and has a strong applied component. Perhaps it is time for chemistry departments to rethink the subject's internal structure: the traditional divisions of physical, organic and inorganic chemistry have long since become irrelevant in many respects.

Another challenge for chemists is to be ambitious in defining the discipline's boundaries, particularly in relation to the life sciences. And in terms of public perception, chemistry has to find a way of establishing its centrality in the mysterious process we call life.

Nature 442, 500-502(3 August 2006) | doi:10.1038/442500a; Published online 2 August 2006

Chemistry: What chemists want to know

Philip Ball (Philip Ball is a consultant editor for Nature.)

Chemistry is a key component in all the scientific disciplines. But does that mean it is nothing more than a handy tool — or are there still major chemical questions to crack? Philip Ball finds out.

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Physicists do not shy away from promoting the big questions that drive their field — how the Universe began, say, or what governs the behaviour of space, time and matter over scales from the atomic to the cosmic. Biologists, too, are happy to point to Erwin Schrödinger's question 'What is life?', which they are attempting to answer by unravelling DNA and mapping out the structures and interactions of proteins.

But what of the third basic science in the curriculum? To judge from the scant attention chemistry gets in the public media, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is a discipline whose time has passed, its grand puzzles all now answered. Does chemistry have any big questions left?

Identifying such frontier questions seems all the more urgent because university chemistry departments are facing an uncertain future. The department at the University of Sussex in Britain, for many years home to Nobel laureate Harry Kroto, co-discoverer of buckminsterfullerene, was the latest in a long line threatened with closure. It has so far resisted an attempt to remodel it as a 'chemical biology' adjunct of the life-sciences division; but several other UK chemistry departments have failed to evade the axe. Following similar moves and concerns in the United States, a 2004 editorial in Chemical and Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society (ACS), proposed changing the organization's name, rebranding it as the Society for Molecular Sciences and Engineering.

With departments closing and student numbers dwindling, can today's chemists be sure that their discipline will continue to be seen as a core science? Some of them complain that many of its most important questions are being framed in terms of the 'chemical' aspect of another discipline, rather than being seen as central to chemistry itself. In an attempt to gauge the prospects for academic chemistry, Nature asked many leading chemists what the field's big questions are, and whether in fact chemistry needs big questions to maintain a sense of coherence and identity.

The strongly synthetic character of chemistry sets it apart from the 'discovery' sciences such as physics, biology, astronomy and the Earth sciences. "Chemistry creates its object," as the French chemist Marcelin Berthelot wrote in 1860.

Many chemists still see this creativity as one of the field's strengths. "It makes chemistry able to set goals of a type most other sciences cannot hope to attain," says Ron Breslow, an organic chemist at Columbia University in New York and a past president of the ACS. "Where is synthetic astronomy — changing the gravitational constant to see what effect that has on the properties of the Universe, and thus perhaps improving it?"

And although synthetic biology is now emerging as a genuine discipline, to many chemists this is just another branch of applied chemistry, relying as it does on chemical techniques such as DNA synthesis and protein design. "We are the only science where things can be made that were never made before," says nucleic-acid chemist Jacqueline Barton at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Q1: How do we design molecules with specific functions and dynamics?

The downside of this focus on making stuff is that chemists can be portrayed as inveterate tinkerers — tweaking the molecular world to satisfy their curiosity, sometimes for fun and sometimes for profit. And it makes it especially hard to see where industrial chemistry ends and academic chemistry begins, because important practical challenges provide the motivation for much academic creativity.

"Chemistry is the scientific enterprise that fuels industry," notes Barton. "Not just petrochemicals, but pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and computer chips." Breslow agrees that chemistry faces not so much big questions as big practical challenges, such as "to devise a practical method to derive our needed energy from sunlight; to create a room-temperature superconductor that can carry large currents; to learn now to perform the manufacturing we need without damaging the environment".

Be specific

No one would deny the importance of applied and industrial chemistry. But if chemistry's questions aren't so much about what we can know but about what we can do, does that make it a form of engineering — a quest for particular solutions to particular problems?

According to inorganic chemist