Friday, August 5, 2011

Is Chemistry Still Relevant in the 21st Century?

As the world celebrate the UN-sponsored 2011 International Year of Chemistry, is the science of chemistry still of vital importance in the 21st Century?

By: Ringo Bones

Back in 1999, science writers raved about labeling the 21st Century as the "Century of Biology" due to the advances in biological sciences and the much touted progress of the human genome mapping project just started a few years before and the implied discoveries it might usher in a few years down the road. The said science writers even dubbed the 19th Century as the "Century of Chemistry", probably due to the discoveries made in that century ushering in much of the 20th Century's vital chemical industry - while the 20th Century was dubbed as the "Century of Physics" not only because the "Century of Physics" actually started in 1896 with various scientists around Europe discovering hitherto unknown facts about the natural phenomena of radioactive decay, but also nuclear weapons and the nuclear power generation industry became the primary geopolitical force for much of the post World War II history of the 20th Century. But is it still fair to question the extent of importance of the science of chemistry in the 21st Century?

As a chemistry buff, an overwhelming landmark discoveries of the science of chemistry - in my opinion - did happen in the 19th Century and most of them in Victorian Era Europe. German chemist Friedrich Wöhler "repudiating" the barrier between organic and inorganic chemistry after he synthesized urea - an organic compound then believed to can only be produced by biological processes - from two inorganic compounds - i.e. by mixing silver cyanate and ammonium chloride. Expecting to find ammonium cyanate - an inorganic salt - as the precipitate, Wöhler instead found out that he had produced urea, an organic compound then believed to be "impossible" to synthesize by inorganic means. Just one of the events that had made the 19th Century to be dubbed as the "Century of Chemistry".

Sadly in the 20th Century and the 21st Century too, lone chemists making landmark discoveries are a rare event since most chemists these days are tenured specialists by big industrial chemical companies like Dow and DuPont. Even those clever chemical remediation schemes funded by the American Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program to clean up groundwater contaminated by toxic chemical wastes are more often than not a team effort by tenured chemists.

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