Catching up on a few articles I had missed, I came across a characteristically deep and wide-ranging essay called "Assumptions" by George Whitesides about science, its future and our responsibility as scientists. It's a very general and kaleidoscopic essay not restricted to chemistry, but the bits about chemistry, its role in understanding the major problems confronting humanity and chemists' responsibility in extending the scope of chemical science are quite thought-provoking:
Chemistry, by its culture, has been almost blindly reductionist. I am repeatedly reminded that “Chemists work on molecules”, as if to do anything else was suspect. Chemists do and should work on molecules, but also on the uses of molecules, and on problems of which molecules may be only a part of the solution. If chemists move beyond molecules to learn the entire problem—from design of surfactants, to synthesis of colloids, to MRI contrast agents, to the trajectories of cells in the embryo, to the applications of regenerative medicine—then the flow of ideas, problems, and solutions between chemistry and society will animate both.Whitesides is clearly making a plea for chemists to become even more interdisciplinary than what they already are, to pursue not just the development of the solution but its application and integration; his own group provides a remarkable example of chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers working together on highly multidisciplinary problems. It's quite clear that to achieve this interdisciplinary expertise we have to completely break down the traditional barriers between synthesis, structure determination, biology and materials (in this world the professor who rejected my biochemical literature seminar topic because it "did not include any synthesis" would be an anachronism). The next paragraph makes clear the role of the "central science"
As a technology, chemistry has built the foundation from which many of the discoveries of “biology” or “microelectronics” or “brain science” (or “planetary exploration”, for that matter) have grown. There would be no genomics without chemical methods for separating fragments of DNA, and for synthesizing primers and probes, and for separating restriction endonucleases into pure activities. There would be no nuclear ICBMs without methods of refining plutonium, and making explosive lenses. There would be no drugs without synthesis and mass spectroscopy. There would be no interplanetary probes without fuels, and carbon/carbon rocket throat nozzles, and silicon single crystals.And here's something about what the future of chemistry should be:
Those are the past. What about the future? Chemistry is, still, everywhere: It must be! It is the science of the real world. But to remain a star in the play rather than a stagehand, it must open its eyes to new problems. It is impossible that the human life span will increase dramatically without manipulation of the molecules of the human organism, but understanding this problem will require more than manipulating molecules. Communication between the living and non-living will require engineering a molecular interface between them, but designing this interface will require understanding the nature of “information” in organisms and in computers, and how to translate between them. A society that uses information technology to interweave all its parts requires new systems for generating, distributing, and storing power, but batteries will be only one part of these systems.
Chemistry has always been the invisible hand that builds and operates the tools, and sustains the infrastructure. It can be more. We think of ourselves as experts in quarrying blocks from granite; we have not thought it our job to build cathedrals from them. Whether we choose to focus on the molecules, materials, and tools that are at the beginnings of discovery, or bring our particular, unique understanding of the world to bear on unraveling the problems at the end, is for us to decide. I believe that everything from methane to sentience is chemistry, and that we should reexamine our own assumptions concerning the boundaries of our field. Examining the broader assumptions that follow may provide some stimulus to do so.Indeed, examining the "broader assumptions" of their field in the broadest sense of the term is what chemists should do. The first paragraph presents a fair sampling of the myriad problems in which chemistry can play a central role. They involve everything from engineering interfaces between computers or electronics and human brains to harnessing the power of chemistry in generating, storing, interconverting and deploying energy in all its forms. I strongly think that the future of chemistry lies in recasting itself as an informational science in the broadest sense. At the level of biology chemistry has already manipulated information in the form of sequencing and genomics; synthetic biology will take this capability to a whole new level. But there are other areas in which chemistry can serve to manipulate information, and part of what Whitesides is doing is challenging chemists to become informational scientists in hitherto unexplored areas like energy and transportation.
The essay ends with a systems-level view of chemistry that every chemist should keep in mind, even as she works in her narrow world of natural products, zeolites, ROMP or kinases.
Because chemistry contributes broadly to the foundations of technology, it is particularly difficult to guess its future impact: a new chemical reaction might be used to make a cancer therapeutic, or a chemical weapon. Some of the opportunities that seem within the reach of investigation, if not within the reach of solution—technologies that might substantially prolong life, or develop new forms of life, or lead to sentient systems that rival us in intelligence—will do both good and harm. At minimum, those of us whopursue these problems should accept an obligation to explain to our fellow citizens fully and clearly what we are doing, and why, and (to the limited extent we can) with what possible outcomes. Humankind will do what it will do, but at least everyone should understand—in so far as is possible—what the choices are, and what the consequences might be. Chemistry, if it takes more interest in (and responsibility for) the full scope of programs—from molecules, to applications, and to influence on society—may be able to use the very breadth of its connections to technology to help in this explanation.Whitesides Image: Boston.com