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A Bird’s-Eye View - The New Chemistry

The New Chemistry. Nina Hall, ed. xi + 493 pp. Cambridge University Press

As a teenager, I was given a copy of John C. Slater’s Modern Physics. It would be hard to overstate its influence—it made a scientist out of me. It belonged to a class of very special books that are authoritative despite being popularizations, that are encyclopedic but also report the state of the science, that are conceptually rigorous but are light on equations and avoid jargon. Such books nurture a sense of vocation in budding scientists and are thus invaluable. The New Chemistry, which aspires to showcase the best of contemporary chemistry, may belong on the sparsely populated shelf of books in this class.

Assuredly, I am not alone in my enduring affection for encyclopedias and atlases. Their charm stems from providing guidance into the unknown, rendering it accessible with simple concepts and simple words. The New Chemistry partakes of a similar ambition—to offer scientists in other fields and the public at large a bird’s-eye view of chemistry. It provides both a review and an update.

The topics covered give an overview of turn-of-the-millennium academic chemistry (industrial chemistry shines by its near-total absence), from the search for new elements to the image of chemistry in society. The book is strong on pharmaceuticals: Seven out of 17 chapters deal with the subject, describing among other things new techniques for carrying out the reactions of synthetic organic chemistry, such as ultrasonic or microwave irradiation. Areas treated in the remaining chapters include surface chemistry, organometallics, photochemistry, bioinorganic chemistry, dissipative structures, new materials and molecular electronics.

Coverage of the field is spotty—it had to be! Synthetic organic chemistry is well served. Nonetheless, I regret that so many outstanding areas, with handsome recent contributions, were left out: most of biological chemistry—arguably the New Frontier in chemistry—and its exciting subdisciplines, such as neurochemistry and chemistry of communication; single-molecule chemistry, with beautiful techniques such as atomic-force microscopy; analytical chemistry; spectroscopy; astrochemistry; geochemistry; and buckyballs and nanotubes.
Although this is in many ways a splendid book, it raises two main issues: What is the “new chemistry” of the title? And why do chemists have so little gift for communication?
I would contend that the new chemistry—in reaction to the division of labor and overspecialization common before 1950—has been characterized by bold orthogonal moves. Quite a few chemists, whether theoreticians or experimentalists, have moved across boundaries between the subdisciplines, and they have made the whole field theirs to roam about. Whereas it had been customary to find a comfortable niche for oneself (churning out and characterizing, let’s say, new organoselenium compounds), funding agencies in the post-Sputnik era saw to the demise of such “old chemistry.” The new chemistry had to either show relevance to societal problems, from cancer to energy and pollution, or stand on its own feet by being daring and by opening up new chapters in chemical science.

I select for praise, from among other excellent contributions (by some fluke, the material scientists have been better at it than the molecular chemists), the chapter by Peter P. Edwards, “What, Why and When is a Metal?” Idiosyncrasy is one of its numerous strengths. Memorable formulaic phrases dot its pages. [TO SAY THAT A PHRASE IS FORMULAIC USUALLY HAS THE CONNOTATION THAT IT IS UNORIGINAL—THE OPPOSITE OF MEMORABLE. I ASSUME THAT YOU MEAN SOMETHING LIKE “MEMORABLE PHRASES THAT ENCAPSULATE THE MEANING OF COMPLEX FORMULAS”? DO YOU WANT TO GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF ONE OF THESE MEMORABLE PHRASES?] Furthermore, Edwards starts from a stance both phenomenological, in the philosophical sense, and historical: Anyone can become interested. He then leads his reader through successive questions (such as how to make a metal nonconductive and how to turn a nonmetal into a metal) to the frontiers of contemporary science. Furthermore, Edwards constantly brings in the history of science and cultural aspects for a truly three-dimensional treatment. Beyond doubt, his is an exemplary chapter.

Other chapters, by contrast, do not make an effort to address the general reader. Bulging with chemical formulas and specialized terminology, they consist of a standard lecture to fellow chemists, which even a prestigious author and the coffee-table book format can’t redeem and make attractive to a nonchemist. Furthermore, The New Chemistry lacks the striking and spectacular illustration one expects in a coffee-table book; no real attempt was made to render it eye-catching.

That my profession is so little interested in communication is deplorable. It goes a long way toward explaining the chemophobia of the general public. And the explanation is the aforementioned narrow-minded specialization.

True, if one were to submit a bunch of chemists to brain scans, the area for language would light up when they were asked to look at molecular formulas. These are an extremely powerful tool for communication among chemists—formulas are such an effective vehicular language that some chemists simply cannot do without them. And yet the conquests of contemporary chemical science can be explained without such a crutch, and the extra effort it takes to do so is definitely well worthwhile.