10/05/2006

Where's the chemistry?

So this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to...biology. "The molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription." AAAARGH!
To a lot of people, I suppose this is the interesting side of chemistry. It can be interesting, I'll give it that. And I'm not entirely speaking from ignorance, since my first two labs were in molecular biology and biochemistry. Some of it is nice. There isn't too much to worry about in terms of "this will kill you." Of course, don't drink the ethidium bromide, and don't lick the petri dish. But in a biology lab, you're probably not going to encounter, say, leaky HCl cylinders or ether fires (I'm not even getting into toxic substances, because it would take far too long). This makes it layman-friendly. It's also a little more familiar to the average non-scientist, who might not have any clue what a fume hood looks like, but who definitely knows what DNA is. Which sounds cooler to an idiot? "I develop new catalysts for polymerization!" or "I sequence wasp genes!" [1]

There's also the fact that, for many people, chemistry is hard. Because there's math in it. And when there isn't math in it (ah, organic), it's that stupid class that kept them out of med school. Part of this is because it isn't taught well. In so many high school chemistry classes, some of the first topics covered are very physical. "These are quantum numbers." What? Where did those come from? They don't bother going any further, so chemistry becomes something more to memorize rather than something SUPER AWESOME like it is when you understand the implications of quantization a little better. [2] Worse yet: "This is stoichiometry." Fundamental? Definitely. Boring? Extremely. Contrast this with high school biology: "Today we are dissecting a cow's eye." Gross? Kinda. Interesting? Come on, the lens BOUNCES if you drop it on the floor! That's fun even if you hate biology.
So, to people who don't know any better, sure, biology is awesome, and chemistry is boring. But...what's your nonstick cookware coated with? What's in the Allegra you take every morning to keep you from getting snotty? What's in your power steering fluid? [3] Chemistry is everywhere. Most people can't live without it. (Plastic, anyone?) It's not OUR fault they don't think a little more about what they use on a daily basis. Granted, chemistry isn't the only useful science. Physics can be useful too...if you want to build nuclear bombs and trebuchets, maybe. [4] Biology without chemistry? That means no PCR (sorry, that's chemistry), no green fluorescent protein (how are you going to purify it?), no antibiotics... Maybe you still have microscopes?
There you have it. There is more significant, useful work going on in chemistry than most people realize. Our science is the forgotten middle child. But what can we do to change things? It helps to try a little outreach every once in a while. Tell your friends about hydrogen storage or spray-on solar cells (but don't mention the uber-short device lifetimes, because that totally kills the coolness factor). If you have a kid in school who doesn't get to see anything turn pretty colors, see if you can go in and do a demonstration. Do something to remind the public that chemists are still around, even if the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences seems to have forgotten us.
/end rant


[1] I don't mean to imply that non-scientists are idiots, but I used to do this for a living, and the most frequently asked question was: "So can you, like, make a mutant killer wasp?"
[2] Well, I thought it was super awesome.
[3] One day I was complaining about being sprayed with power steering fluid--some got on my glasses and wouldn't come off. The guy next to me (also a chemist) looked at the ceiling and wondered aloud, "What's in power steering fluid?" ...Seriously, does anyone know?
[4] Alright. I'm kidding. Without physics, we wouldn't have NMR.[5]
[5] Of course, without chemists, no one would use NMR.

3 comments:

Ochemist said...

As far as I know, NMR is also used in medicine

Ψ*Ψ said...

yeah, MRI...see, being around "i want to go to med school!" 24/7 forces me to block these things out :)

David Eaton said...

Long chain aliphatics, with some branching (more branching than transmission fluid, which is also made of aliphatics)- C17-C35 according to the journal of forensic chemistry.

Brake fluid, interestingly, is made of aliphatic ethers. Not a lot out there that I can find about why these things are made of these compounds...