Weird Science: International Year of Chemistry

by Sue Lange

This post was actually the last post of my Weird Science series. It closed out 2011, and I’m posting it here now while last year, the International Year of Chemistry, is still in our minds. It’s not so much weird science as it is just weird. Is there anything in the Universe that doesn’t have something to do with chemistry? To me, designating a year for the subject reminds me of how children ask, “There’s a mothers day and a fathers day, so when is kids day?” The answer, of course, is “every day is children’s day.”

For me, every day is chemistry day, and it seemed strange that the United Nations needed to designate a whole year for it. Whatever. The idea was to “increase the public appreciation of chemistry in meeting world needs, to encourage interest in chemistry among young people, and to generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry.” They chose the year 2011 for a couple of reasons. It marked the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie’s Nobel Award and also the 100th anniversary of the founding of the International Association of Chemical Societies.

The opening festivities were held on January 27-28 at UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific & Cultural Organization) in Paris. In the opening ceremony Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General, stated: “The chemistry of the future must be a responsible science.”

I take that to mean it has not been a responsible science in the past.

IUPAC President Nicole Moreau implored “chemists to do everything in their power to change the terrible public image of chemistry.”

The “terrible public image of chemistry” probably has a lot to do with whatever Ms. Bokova was alluding to.

For all the hype about how chemistry is going to save the planet, feed the people, and provide bigger, faster, better transportation, we can’t forget its dark side. Think of napalm, DDT, the gas leak in Bhopal.

Even in the development of benign materials, such as synthetic baby formula, astroturf, dacron and polyester, I don’t see world-saving progress. Sure, chemistry helps our lives in the form of pills and plastics and composite materials but it has also contributed to the cheapening of it.

Industrial chemistry aims to find efficient methods for extracting nourishment from the soil. We are reminded that the increase in population will be threatening the planet’s carrying capacity by the year 2050. The moguls of chemistry are confident they can meet that challenge. We won’t even need to change our lifestyles.

But I hope that along with better fertilizers, chemistry is working on better, safer methods of birth control as well. Because no matter how efficient food production becomes, it only leads to ever greater increases in our numbers. We will always be threatening the carrying capacity. At some point there will be no more energy to extract from the planet and then our numbers will dwindle for sure, but in a rather painful way.

Chemistry can do a lot of things and it’s an amazing discipline and yes we need to encourage young people to study this difficult subject. But encouragement along with studying sustainability with emphasis on the quality of life is important too. Sure with the right chemistry there are virtually no limits to our growth. We can stack up human beings on top of each other and feed them intravenously but at some point we need to ask what is the point? Quality of life is just as important as quantity. Chemistry has contributed to quantity, it must also consider quality.

I applaud the year’s events that did consider quality. Below is a sampling.

In India, they held a Science Exhibition on Non-conventional energy sources. Non-conventional energy sources consist of those energy sources that are infinite, natural, and restorable. For example, tidal energy, solar energy, and wind energy.

In Japan, they held the Surface Science –- Towards Nano, Bio-, and Green Innovation panel.

In the Philippines, they conducted a water treatment experiment.

And the Pittsburgh chapter of Cafe Scientifique invited Dr. Patricia DeMarco, Director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University to speak on renewable-based energy economy.

Throughout the year, there were thousands of events held in as far flung places as Brazil, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, the UK, Japan, China, the U.S. and more. It’s good to know that around the world people are looking to arm themselves with knowledge of the chemical world. There are a lot of problems facing us as we move into the future. Our technology brings us amazing things but at some point we have to clean up after ourselves. Only with a thorough knowledge of chemistry will we be able to do that.

Thanks for reading.

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s novel, Tritcheon Hash, is full of weird science and logical lapses. It was included in Kirkus’ Best of 2011 list and can be found in the Book View Cafe ebookstore. And if you’re still reading print, get it here.




Weird Science: International Year of Chemistry — 1 Comment

  1. I must admit that I see why they need to do something to encourage people to go into chemistry. I have a couple of good friends who are chemists and I kind of wonder why. Not like I wonder about why people become dentists or accountants — I can grasp that someone might be fascinated by chemical reactions, but I cannot figure out any reason why anyone would be willing to look at nasty teeth and gums all day or deal with financial records.

    It’s not a lack of interest in science on my part; I understand the lure of biology and physics and even mathematics. Chemistry always left me cold. It could be the fact that when I took high school chemistry, I always figured out what was going on about six weeks after we’d finished that topic.

    Oh, and there’s nothing benign about astroturf. Just ask all the pro athletes who’ve blown their knees out playing on it. But I’m sure I’ve got some products around the house that cry out “better living through chemistry.”