Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) is celebrating 90 years of its existence this year, and I can only imagine how perplexed and awestruck its editors from 1923 would have been had they witnessed the state of pure and applied chemistry in 2013. I still remember devouring the articles published in the magazine during its 75th anniversary, and this anniversary also offers some tasty perspectives on a diverse smattering of topics; catalysis, structural biology and computational chemistry to name a few.
There's an article in the magazine documenting how the single-most important concept in chemistry - that of the chemical bond - has undergone a transformation; from fuzzy, to rigorously defined, to fuzzy again (although in a very different sense).
Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann had something characteristically insightful to say about The Bond:
"My advice is this: Push the concept to its limits. Be aware of the different experimental and theoretical measures out there. Accept that at the limits a bond will be a bond by some criteria, maybe not others. Respect chemical tradition, relax, and instead of wringing your hands about how terrible it is that this concept cannot be unambiguously defined, have fun with the fuzzy richness of the idea.”
In a bigger sense the change in chemistry during these 90 years has been no less than astounding. In 1923 the chemical industry already made up the foundations of a great deal of daily life, but there was little understanding of how to use the concepts and products of chemical science in a rational manner. Since 1923 our knowledge of both the most important aspect of pure chemistry (the chemical bond) and of applied chemistry (synthesis) has grown beyond the wildest dreams of chemistry's founders.
If we had to pinpoint two developments in chemistry during these 90 years that would truly be described as "paradigm shifts", they would be the theoretical understanding of bonding and the revolution in instrumental analysis. As I and others have argued before, chemistry unlike physics is more "Galisonian" than "Kuhnian", relying as much on new instrumental techniques as on conceptual leaps for its signal achievements.
The two most important experimental advances in chemistry - x-ray diffraction and nuclear magnetic resonance - both came from physics, but it was chemists who honed these concepts into a routine laboratory tool for the structure determination of a staggeringly diverse array of substances, from table salt to theribosome. The impact of these two developments on chemistry, biology, medicine and materials science cannot be underestimated; they cut down the painstaking task of molecular structure determination from months to hours, they allowed us to find out the nature of novel drugs, plastics and textiles and they are now used by every graduate student every single day to probe the structure of matter and synthesize new forms of it. Other developments like infrared spectroscopy, electron diffraction, atomic force microscopy and single molecule spectroscopy are taking chemistry in novel directions.
The most important theoretical development in chemistry also derived from physics, but its progress against demonstrates chemists' central role in acting as mediators between concept and application. It also serves to make a key point about reductionism and the drawbacks of trying to reduce chemistry to physics. The chemical bond is an abstract concept going back to "affinities" between atoms (which when illustrated were replete with hooks and eyes). But it was in 1923 that the great American chemist G. N. Lewis propounded the idea in terms of atoms sharing electrons. This was a revolutionary brainwave and illuminated the way for Linus Pauling, John Slater, Robert Mulliken, John Pople and others to use the newly developed machinery of quantum mechanics to fashion the qualitative principle into an accurate, quantitative tool which - with the development of modern computing - now allows chemists to routinely calculate and predict important properties for any number of chemical substances.
Yet the ramifications of the chemical bond tempt and beguile physicists and constantly escape from their grasp when they try to define them too accurately. The above quote by Roald Hoffmann puts the problem in perspective; quintessentially chemical ideas like aromaticity, the hydrophobic effect, steric effects and polarity "fray at the edges" (in Hoffmann's words) when you try to push them to their limits and try to define them in terms of subatomic physics. Chemistry is a great example of an emergent discipline. It is derived from physics and yet independent of it, relying on fundamental definitions at its own level when progressing.
The chemical bond and other theoretical aspects of chemistry have enabled the rise of the one activity pursued by chemists of which society is an unsurpassed beneficiary - the science, art and commerce of synthesis. Every single molecule that bathes, clothes, feeds, warms, transports and heals us has been either derived from nature using chemical techniques or has been synthetically made in a chemical laboratory. The social impact of these substances is hard to underestimate; even a sampling of a few such as the contraceptive pill, antibiotics or nylon attests to the awesome power of chemistry to completely transform our lives.
In 1923 synthesis was a haphazard process and there was virtually no understanding of how we could do it rationally. All of this changed in the 1950s and 60s when a group of pioneering scientists led by the legendary organic chemist Robert Burns Woodward revolutionized the process and honed synthesis into a precisely rational science which took advantage of the course of chemical reactions, the alignment of orbitals, the development of new chemical reagents and the three-dimensional shape of molecules. Many Nobel Prizes were handed out for these groundbreaking discoveries, but none surpassed the sheer impact that synthesis will continue to have on our way of life.
As is inevitably the case for our embrace of science and technology, with progress also come problems, and chemists have had to deal with their share of issues like environmental pollution, drug side effects and the public perception of chemistry. Suffice it to say that most chemists are well aware of these and are working hard to address them. They recognize that with knowledge comes responsibility, and the responsibility they bear to mitigate the ills of the wrongful application of their science transcends their narrow professional interests and encompasses their duties as citizens.
In the new century chemistry continues to build upon its past and chemists continue to push its boundaries. Another change which the editors of C&EN would not have foreseen in 1923 is the complete integration of chemistry into other disciplines like biology, medicine and engineering and its coming into its own as the true "central science". Today chemistry deeply reaches into every single aspect of our lives. The cardinal problems facing civilization - clean and abundant food and water, healthcare, national security, overpopulation, poverty, climate change and energy - cannot be solved without a knowledge of chemistry. Simply put, a world without chemistry would be a world which we cannot imagine, and we should all welcome and integrate the growth of chemical science into our material and moral worldview.
First published on the Scientific American Blog Network.