Sidelined Science

The chemists on teh internetz seem to be feeling pretty hard done by these days.  I’ve seen a lot of twittering and blogging about the way chemistry is perceived by non-chemists (the public, but including other branches of science), the (mis-)use of the word chemical, the absence of chemistry blogs from most blogging networks and the implications that chemistry blogs are part of a more closed community because of the jargon or nature of the posts. [I’ve linked to ScienceGeist because I think the issues are handled pretty well there, and its a very nice looking blog. Other blog discussions are probably available.]

The more passionate and evangelical chemists out there will tell you that chemistry is simply and absolutely pivotal in many developments in subjects with different names, including molecular biology (characterisation techniques), materials science (nature of materials, reactions to prepare, methods to characterise), pharmaceuticals (beyond medicinal chemistry and drug discovery) and many more.  There is a lot of hand wringing that chemistry as a subject does not get the credit it deserves for its role in major discoveries in these fields; on the other hand, when the Nobel Prize for Chemistry is awarded for anything less than overt atom pushing, the chemists complain about that!  I would largely agree that chemistry’s contribution to science is incalculable and people may do well to remember where their reactions and techniques originated before getting too possessive of them.  Chemistry is frequently identified as the ‘central science’ which seems to have become synonymous with ‘everyone uses it but doesn’t acknowledge it’.

Chemistry, perhaps by dubious virtue of association with the concept chemicals, does not have a great public face.  Chemicals are widely perceived as being bad/dangerous/toxic/cancer causing but they are also good/helpful/safe when used appropriately/cancer curing substances.  Chemistry is, of course, neither good nor bad.  It is only the uses to which it is put that can be seen as helpful or harmful.  Chemistry at its heart is the exploration of what we can do with the elements in the periodic table – our lego box if you will.  If science is broadly the study of the physical universe (see last post), then chemistry is the study of the elements and compounds with in that universe.  Perhaps it is damned by being too abstract when compared to the study of living systems in the biological sciences, and insufficiently grand and abstract when compared to the study of the universe and subatomic particles towards the hardcore physics end.  Perhaps people just can’t get that enthusiastic about a subject that struggles to relate itself easily to everyday things, despite being the key to their existence.

I’ve seen a few comments alluding to chemistry’s public image as the reason that chemistry is missing from science blogging networks, but is it the reason that chemists chose not to write about the subject at an accessible level? Are chemists themselves disillusioned with the subject to the point where they have no desire to write about the everyday wonders of medicines, advanced materials and all the rest?  Very few chemistry bloggers seem to attempt to dissect research papers that contain hard chemistry that is more pure than applied science.  A significant portion of chemistry content on blogs revolves around the properties and uses of the elements rather than the cutting edge of research.  I suggest a challenge – instead of writing about the chemistry of every day things, why not write a post about a recent research paper that’s got hard to grasp chemistry in it?   It may be easier to pick one of your own papers, or one closely related to your research field, as simplification requires good understanding of the work.  If you write a post, drop a comment and I’ll compile a list of them.  It would also be useful to put them through

7 thoughts on “Sidelined Science

  1. Katherine,
    Wonderful comments. This is something that I’ve really been struggling with myself lately. (As you’ve noted with your links I’ve done too much editorializing. Alas.) But, I think that you’re exactly right. We DO need to talk about research and not just “everyday” chemistry. The issue lies in the language you use to talk about chemistry. We need “everyday” vocabulary to talk about it. I really think that chemistry is in its infancy in terms of the words used to describe it. This issue is compounded by the fact that our (chem bloggers in general) readership is largely made up of chemists. We need to do more writing for non-chemists while not disenfranchising the chemistry crew (our readership)
    However, your suggestions are very well put … and very well received. Hopefully we’ll have more to show for this soon.

  2. I think it would be unfair to say you’ve been editorializing 🙂 I agree about vocabulary (and am guilty of complaining a lot at the moment that I lack the vocabulary to operate effectively in a new sub-field of chemistry that my research is moving into) – it is very important to get the words write.
    I’m going to step up to my own challenge, there is a pile of papers on my desk so at least one should be suitable for discussion and . It forces me to engage with literature in a very different way.

  3. I’m doing the same! When I finally get my faculty webpage loaded (silly university policies slowing me down), I’m going to have a widget on the front of the page saying what paper I’m currently reading. Hope it gets me to blog about some of these!

  4. A wonderful idea!!! And yes, I’ve been rather surprised by the lack of chemistry blogs in the major science blog aggregators…

    I’ll give it a fly and send you a link!

  5. I’m failing already! I thought I’d found a good paper until I started reading it closely and realised that there were several fundamental errors in it that made the results possibly meaningless! I’m still looking for another one!

  6. But then people will *know* I’m an idiot, instead of just wondering about it!

    (j/k — this is a great idea.)

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