Monday, February 6, 2017

The search goes on

If I had a nickel for every cry for every call for a singular voice to champion chemistry to the public, I'd have a hell of a lot of nickels. Also in this week's C&EN, an editorial from a group of professors connected with UNESCO (Stephen A. Matlin, Goverdhan Mehta, Henning Hopf, Alain Krief) with this ages-old complaint:
Chemistry lacks well-recognized voices such as those of Craig Venter for genomics research and Stephen Hawking for cosmology. Statesmanlike celebrity chemists can and should contribute significantly by capturing broad attention in the media, galvanizing societal esteem, and igniting young minds to project the dimensions of chemistry in all its diverse roles. Of course, the champions may be important and busy people devoting their time to doing great science. But it is incumbent on them to give attention to and communicate about the field that sustains their creative urges and provides the basis for their visibility and careers.
It should be noted the article goes on to call industrial chemists to champion green chemistry and all of us to advocate for chemistry.

(I'm really bored with the continual call for celebrity chemists to seize the commanding heights of mass media and get people excited about chemistry. Does anyone think it would have influence? I dunno.) 


  1. For his part, Whitesides tries to engage outside audiences.

    Corey, Mirkin, Yaghi et al, not so much.

  2. I think the problem is assuming that "Celebrity Chemists" actually means something. I know plenty of good organic chemists who have know idea who Chad Mirkin or Paul Alivisatos are, while there are plenty of inorganic types who will give you a blank stare when you fawn over Corey or Baran. Ask 20 people on the street to name 3 scientists, and you're going to get back Einstein, Degrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye.

    Engaging the public is a grassroots effort based on connections to individuals and communities. The opinion of a professor at the local community college probably carries as much weight with a regional audience as a Nobel laureate.

  3. Most traditional chemistry is going to bore the public regardless of the spokesperson. It's not like physics (planets!) or biology (animals!) both of which can be boiled down into simple concepts that can be easily related to every day life. Elements! just doesn't have the same impact. There are some sub-areas within chemistry like MedChem or EnviroChem that might engage the public and if you got some of those people to be spokespersons with the eventual goal of sneakily pulling the public to more traditional chemistry, maybe you might get somewhere. But even then I'm skeptical. Look at PBS. They have "Nature" for the biologists and "Nova" for the physicists (with the occasional chemistry thrown in). But there is no "Molecules". If you can't convince the eggheads on PBS that chemistry deserves its own show, how are you going to convince the public that it matters?

  4. It seems academics are the ones with the best chance, but such a small pool of available talent ends up with an academic position (regardless of whether or not its their choice or a committee's choice). Among this small pool of candidates how many do exciting research and are authentically excited about chemistry? And I don't mean the usual word salad of chemistry is great, STEM jobs are great. I mean really excited about what they have done and are doing. Most come off as bored old men. At my wife's university the organic professors didn't even recognize the 2016 Nobel Laureates. Molecular machines is arguably one of the most sexy areas of chemistry, but even current faculty seem to be unaware. Chemistry seems to be obsessed with the age old divisions of organic, inorganic, physical, analytical and biochemistry. In short, the available pool is small and within the small pool the level of authentic enthusiasm and creativity is low. And as far as industrial chemists go, promoting Green Chemistry is more of a sales thing. My company would not let me go out and do that, even though what I'm working on falls under the banner of Green Chemistry. Now, if I could transfer into academics I could make a strong argument which would not just be fluff but come from actual industrial (including manufacturing) experience, but I can just see the bulk of academics cringing at the thought of someone from industry stepping into their bubble, even though some of the most successful academics has work that crosses over into industry.

  5. In the UK we have Jim Al-Khalili and Mark Miodownik (actually a materials scientist), yet because they're not Brian Cox they're not big enough. I dunno how many Brian Coxes (or NdGT's) happen per generation, but probably not enough for a good statistical chance of a chemistry one soon. I'd suggest we start being happy with what we've got?