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June 22, 2011



Quite brilliant - a great read. I think you've nailed something important and fascinating.
New Scientist magazine some years ago had a piece reflecting on the lack of glamour attached to chemistry, and argued that the reason was that it had been reduced to the status of a 'service science', wholly industrialised and with its more mysterious aspects annexed by physics and biochemistry. Moreover, chemistry's foundational features seem to be explained fully by atomic and quantum physics.
Physics provides a faint metaphysical thrill to disenchanted moderns, and biology offers the promise to modern materialists and atheists that human nature will be demystified: the fact that this is a disaster in the making for humanism is less obvious to them than the scope that modern biology seems to provide for bashing religion.
Neither physics nor biology suffer guilt-by-association as chemistry does in the wake of chemical weaponry, pollution and drug abuse. It was a telling moment when health food brands started claiming to be 'chemical-free', a physical impossibility but a winning advertising message.


I sometimes wonder if it's partly a broader lack of attention to technology and human impact on the world.

You seen any of the chemistry profession's reactions to "chemical free" advertising? e.g. http://sciencegeist.net/my-chemically-fueled-life/ (the chemical chemistry set is an especially fun example). I think the marketing of processed objects as somehow unprocessed is relevant to this topic, even if the chemists' campaign is more about arguing that the word 'chemical' is a natural not technological category, and thus arguably further hiding the social work they do.


Also, you might like this recent paper on Thatcher, Scientist by historian of science Jon Agar (brief blog-overview).

Will Davies

Thanks, both. The issue of 'chemical free' food hadn't occurred to me, and makes the point even better.

It's also interesting that we instinctively feel an outcry at the prospect of patenting biological discoveries (e.g. the human genome) but are, for the most part, entirely comfortable with the patenting of chemical ones, which we see as the quid pro quo of innovative capitalism. We find property rights fine when life is being 'saved', but not when life is simply living. But I wonder quite how clear this ethical-political and ontological distinction actually is. I'm not the person to offer an answer here, as it cuts to the heart of something rather massive. This is another example of the instrumentalisation of 'chemistry', and the enchantment of 'biology'.

Adrian Vazquez-Perez

So many true points are discussed in your piece, however, I would summarize these into two simple ideas:

1.- Chemistry's breakthroughs are not more analytic anymore, meaning that there is no looking for simpler, smaller more basic components of the systems it studies. Curiously, it is not an "inward" inquiry anymore, which usually topples basic principles and unveils a "great mystery". This , as you said, has maimed the metaphor capabilites of chemistry. Now, rather, chemistry┬┤s breakthroughs are towards complex systems (large, though not necessarily biological) where breakthroughs are incremental and specialized. Chemistry is still in public life, it is just in the details.

2.- Chemistry might be the only science that we know enough to have it integrated into our culture. It has empowered us so quickly and yet we have adopted it seamlessly, it has merged within our culture with a suspicious non-resistance. Its terms, though sometimes misplaced (i.e.- "organic") are already homologized with commonplace chatter. The point that we spew carbon dioxide every so often in common discourse is proof of that familiarity. Drugs are so commonplace to public and private life that they are asily taken for granted. Chemistry is so permeated within public life that it is easy to oversee its influence. Again, it IS there, its in the detail.

Well it was one idea after all. Just two approaches.


A pertinent quotation from the Wikipedia entry on 'Better Living through Chemistry' :

'The phrase "Better Living Through Chemistry" is a variant of a DuPont advertising slogan, "Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry." DuPont adopted it in 1935 and it was their slogan until 1982 when the "Through Chemistry" part was dropped. Since 1999, their slogan has been "The miracles of science". '


Chemistry was the queen of sciences in the 19th, but by several reasons was surpassed by physics and recently biology in public popularity. It must be emphasized that, despite lack of popularity, chemistry continues to be considered the central science in the academic world.

Maybe revolutionary works as this one (http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/853) will reintroduce chemistry in public life by showing as a chemical-based theory can give up a theory of everything.


The correct link http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/853

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