Field of Science

Graphene: Physics or Chemistry?

Akshat Rathi of “The Allotrope” pointed me to an Economist post on the graphene prize (by the way, MS word still asks for a spell-check on ‘graphene’). The writer seems to be a little miffed that a graphene award which was a ‘shoo-in’ for the chemistry prize in his opinion was awarded to physicists, thus depriving chemists of their glory. I can imagine some chemists feeling similarly rebuffed, although they should now ironically anticipate a much more ‘chemical’ prize tomorrow.

I am finding all this extremely amusing. Till last year chemists were galled to find chemistry prizes being awarded to biologists and this year they are going to be unhappy because their prize is being appropriated by physicists? Note that this despondency seems to be rather limited to chemists. I haven’t seen that many physicists complain about their prize awarded to biologists or vice versa.

But to me this disappointment again resoundingly underscores what I have always maintained- that the unique cross-disciplinary nature of chemistry is precisely what makes it the ‘central science’, a field which straddles all of biology and physics. There can be no better tribute to chemistry than the fact that debates are ignited every single year about ‘other’ scientists treading across chemical boundaries. The din only proves that just like sheer films of graphene, chemistry coats the surface of every other field of scientific inquiry and gives it a luminous glow.

The philosopher Karl Popper supposedly devised criteria for distinguishing "science" from "non-science" (and often from nonsense). I think he would have had a much harder time devising tests for separating "chemistry" from "non-chemistry". We chemists should be proud, every single one of us.

P.S. It's also worth noting a commentator's comment on the post which says that unlike fullerene, graphene was initially the domain of physicsts so a physics Nobel seems to be quite justified.


  1. So you're not bothered by the Economist saying:

    "REGULAR readers of The Economist’s science and technology coverage will know that we often question the purpose of the Nobel prize for chemistry. In 1895, when Alfred Nobel drew up his will, chemistry was one of the most exciting sciences around. With completion of the periodic table, though, and with modern understanding of chemical bonds as quantum phenomena caused by the pairing of electrons of opposite spins, chemistry as an intellectual discipline looks, to the outsider at least, to have been largely solved. Our complaint is not that chemistry-prize winners in recent years are unworthy of their laurels. Rather, it is that the intellectual side of their discoveries often seems more to do with the fields of physics or physiology. The advancement of chemistry as a subject in its own right often seems secondary."

    THAT'S why it p*sses me off when the Nobel committee award the prize to biology year-in, year-out - people whose only view of chemistry it is get the wrong message.

  2. Anybody who reads arXiv/cond-mat on a regular basis can tell you that physicists have worked on graphene, are working on graphene and will continue to work on graphene. Whatever else the study of graphene is, it is also physics.

    The boundaries between fields of science are artificial and, to an extent, accidents of history. Wherever you try to draw a line, you'll find problems and careers which cross it. But don't worry — it's really more fun that way.

  3. My rant follows You have been credited. :)

  4. Thanks for the plug...nice article!

  5. You would read What's in a name? Nature 2001, 411, 408–409. Adam, D. Where the author shows how chemistry is being re-branded as physics or biology. You would also read The fascinating future of chemistry 2003, CPS: chemistry/0311002.

    You are not alone and maybe you may find interesting the report linked below, explaining why people is completely wrong regarding the role of chemistry in 21st century science: it will be more central and needed than ever.

    Canonical science: its history, goals, and future


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