This year's chemistry Nobel again raises the question about the nature of chemistry as a central science. An article by Philip Ball in Nature a few months ago, tried to explore whether there are any great questions in pure chemistry, that are exclusively chemical questions. On the side, I must say that Ball has been doing a truly admirable job of popularizing chemistry over the years.
In my opinion, the problem is that the nature of chemistry by definition is both a blessing and a curse for our science. That's because chemistry is all about understanding molecules, and in our lives, it's molecules that are involved in all the real and good stuff, including biology, medicine, and engineering. So what happens is that a chemist may develop a drug, but then a doctor uses it to cure a disease. The credit thus goes mainly to the doctor. Similarly, a chemist discovers a lubricant, but then engineers use it to revolutionize the automobile industry. There goes the credit to the engineers. Therefore, the problem is not really with recognising chemistry, but with recognizing chemists. The problem with recognizing chemistry is of a different nature though; chemistry is so ubiquitous that most people take it for granted. Also, because most people's perception of chemistry is on a practical basis, for them chemistry is more synonymous with industry and manufacturing than with basic scientific research. As noted above, when it comes to basic research, for the general public, chemistry seems to mostly manifest itself through medicine and engineering, which are the actual faces of the product.
In my opinion, there is one question out of all the ones that Ball cites which is both inherently chemical as well as all-pervading, and that is self-assembly, in the broadest sense possible (so that question also ends up encompassing some of his other questions, such as the origin of life). I also think that this problem largely captures the unique nature of chemistry. Self-assembly needs an understanding of forces between molecules that is is a hodgepodge of qualitative and quantitative comprehension. A physics based approach might turn out to be too quantitative, a biology based approach would be too qualitative. Understanding the physics of hydrogen bonds for example would help but would not be enough for understanding their role in self-assembly. It's only such understanding coupled with considerable empirical knowledge of hydrogen bonding in real systems that will serve as a true guide. It's only chemists who can bring the right amount of quantitative analyses and empirical data to bear on such problems. Of course, that does not mean others cannot do this if they tried. But then, anyone can do almost anything if he tries hard enough; that hardly discounts the value of specific expertise.
The main feature of chemistry in my opinion is this fine balance between analytical or mathematical thinking based on first principles, and empirical thinking based on real life data and experiments. This approach makes the science unique I think, and Linus Pauling was probably the exemplary example of someone who embodied this approach in the right proportion. The practical feature of chemistry that makes it unique of course is that chemists create new stuff, but without this kind of understanding, that would not be possible on a grand scale.
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