The Science of Change

2011: The International Year of Chemistry

January 5, 2011

That’s right! 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry (IYC)! So, by international mandate, you are now all required to go out and read an organic chemistry textbook. What’s that you say? You’d rather not? Well, don’t blame me when Ban Ki-moon comes knocking on your door asking if you can assign an NMR spectrum for him.

Just kidding. He’s not going to do that. It’ll be a Mossbauer spectrum. Seriously, though, what does the IYC mean for you? Well, if you’re a chemist like me, it’s a chance to feel important even though the general public finds what you do unapproachable and the overall job prospects for your field seem to be pretty grim. For professionals, it is also time to re-evaluate the roles of a chemist and chemistry institutions. (ACS President, Nancy Jackson addresses some of these issues in her cover article in the current C&E News. Nature Chemistry also adds their two bits here.) For non-chemists, however, the IYC is a time when chemists are really going to try and do a better job of explaining what they do and engaging with the general public on what chemistry actually is.

In that spirit, my post today will discuss the aspect of chemistry that I want people to best-understand. I know there are a lot of opinions on this out there. And, I’d love to hear what our chemist readers think is most important. (icanhasscience might argue that an understanding of equilibrium could really straighten out a situation.) For our non-chemist readers, if there are any topics you’d love to know more about, there is no better time to ask than during the IYC!!

Chemistry: the science of change

Every chemist I know studies change. Some chemists study a material before it has changed. Other chemists study a material after it has changed. Some even study a material while it is changing. Many materials are made specifically to resist change. For some chemists, the manner (pathway) in which a material changes is most important. There are also those who want to make a new material out of an old material and will spend years looking for a way to do it.

So, there are lots of different ways of talking about changes.

David Bowie has his way:

The Brady Buch have their own way:

For a little more instruction, I will use myself as an example.

In July of 2010, I was still a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech.

I drove from Califronia to D.C. basically going on a route with the fewest mountains (i.e. through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, etc).

I could have taken a much more difficult pathway (i.e. going through the Rockies in Utah and Colorado).

Once I arrived in D.C. at American University, I was no longer a postdoc; I was a faculty member.

So, by driving from California to DC, I was changed from a postdoc into an assistant professor. (Warning, this pathway only worked for me. When given another initial starting point – another person – this same transition will not generally occur.)

Hopefully, there will be no equilibrium between my initial state (postdoc) and my final state (professor) whereby I keep going back from one to the other.

And hopefully, the pathway has led me to a stable ending point (i.e. I won’t be able to revert into a postdoc from my current state).

This is how many chemists think. Only we apply this sort of thought to making new molecules (for pharmaceuticals, clothing, fuel, etc. ad infinitum). What am I starting with? How stable is it? What do I want to turn it into? What is the best way to get from point A to point B? How stable is my final state? Can I use it to make something? Can I use it as a new drug molecule? Will it help me keep my engine running?

Hopefully there are a lot more voices (who are much more sophisticated than mine) piping up during the IYC expounding on the virtues and workings of chemistry!


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6 Responses to The Science of Change

  1. sciencegeist says:

    I should also mention that the ACS is celebrating by highlighting one chemical discovery per day for the entire IYC. (That one came via Neil Withers at Nature Chem. Thanks, Neil!)

  2. danilo says:

    El viernes 17 de diciembre se llevó a cabo el Lanzamiento Oficial de la Programación del Año Internacional de la Química en su capítulo Paraguay. El evento se desarrolló en la Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales contando con la presencia del Vice Rector de la UNA, Prof. Arq. Amado Franco Navoni, Decano de la Facultad Politécnica, Prof. Mst. Abel C. Bernal Castillo, el Decano de FaCEN, Prof. Mst. Constantino Nicolas Guefos Kapsalis, Prof. Lic. Virginia Romero en representación de la Sociedad Científica del Paraguay, Directores de Departamentos y Direcciones de la FaCEN, además de representantes de colegios y estudiantes de la facultad.

  3. sciencegeist says:

    Magdeline Lum shares here thoughts on chemistry over at Philosophically Disturbed. Check it out!

  4. sciencegeist says:

    Here is Nature’s addition to the IYC festival (site will be updated through the year)!

  5. sciencegeist says:

    Deborah Blum’s take on being “chemical free”!

  6. Gaythia says:

    Stretching for a chemistry connection, I’ll say that sometimes the most interesting chemical reactions take a little activation energy – and definitely, I think that the route up and over the Rockies in Colorado would have been best!

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