2011 is International Year of Chemistry and frankly I’m struggling to work up enthusiasm for anything that has encouraged to create more ‘greatest ever…’ lists. Seriously folks, the trend started at the turn of the millenium, how much more do we have to take? Yes, I get the point, it is an opportunity for a little grandstanding for great chemical discoveries since chemistry hauled itself out of alchemy, but can’t we do that without the league table?
Even when we do come up with some discoveries that were pretty great, there is often a downside. One example is Fritz Haber who discovered a convenient way to synthesise ammonia and paved the way to modern agricultural practices: fertilizer. The flip side was Haber’s role in the development of chemical weapons in WWI. Biochembelle has a great post up on this topic. If you only have time to scan the post, have a look at the graph that predicts what the worlds population would look like if the Haber process (ammonia manufacture) hadn’t been invented. And that’s another point: I struggle with the idea that there was only one person in the whole of humanity who could have made a specific discovery. Really, would it be a world without ammonia if it had been a world without Haber? Somehow I don’t think so. The timing of the discovery might have been different but I struggle to believe that it would never have been made.
So if we take that idea a little further then we could argue that any of the discoveries made by these so-called greatest chemists were partly to do with being in the right place at the correct time with the right resources. A bit like being the person who finds a fiver in the street – it is there, anyone who has the presence of mind to look down can find it, but only one person can (and when two people find it at once, a fight ensues which is much like scientific discoveries that are made spontaneously by two people). So were they the greatest chemists or was it easier to make groundbreaking discoveries when science was less sophisticated and the content of modern textbooks was still waiting to be uncovered.
With that in mind, we’d have to assume that the greatest chemist of all time is alive today and actively researching at the undiscovered chemistry coalface. The greatest chemist must surely be the sum of all that has gone before and doing something that no one else could ever conceived of. Now, I’m sure people can make some suggestions, but as with Nobel Prize predictions, everyone’s got a favourite, no one’s got a crystal ball. And actually I don’t care. I think that chemists have never had it so hard – the level of learning needed to get up to speed with ‘modern’ chemistry and get to a stage where actual discovery can take place is astonishing. But I also think that chemists have never had it so good – the tools that we possess were things that could barely have been dreamed of when Haber came up with the ammonia thing. Even 50 years ago, running a few NMR spectra was worthy of a publication, these days we expect our undergrads (and visiting school groups) to do it themselves.
Things move on, chemistry moves on, and perhaps greatness is as transitory as celebrity – you really had to be there.