February 2, 2011

International Year of Chemistry.

Its difficult to throughly endorse a worldwide celebration of chemistry, and its "contributions to our well-being", when it's sponsored by chemical industry corporations of such notorious disrepute as BASF (with partner Monsanto in the shadows), the Dow Chemical Co., and DuPont. In fact, it may be even more imperative with sponsors such as these to contemplate the negative impact of industrialised chemistry during a year of events where that particular side of the matter is unlikely to be widely scrutinised.

But then the International Year of Chemistry is an initiative of the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which has been endorsed by the UN with the stated aim of raising awareness among the general public of the vital contributions chemistry makes to our lives ever day (and hopefully attract youngsters to the field). The aim of the year's events is also to raise awareness of the potential chemistry has for solving contemporary as well as future global problems. Both these aims are quite worthwhile.

It may also be pertinent to reflect on the fascinating history of the field, from the dimly lit alcoves of ancient alchemists to the gleaming laboratories (and toxic waste sites) of today. Especially when the year coincides with the 150th anniversary of the first printing of Michael Faraday's (1791 - 1867) The Chemical History of the Candle, based on a series of lectures for young people which today have transmogrified into the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures (not to forget the 220th anniversary of Faraday's birth). It also coincides with 350th anniversary of the first printing of Robert Boyle's (1627 - 1691) The Skeptical Chymist, a volume considered a cornerstone in the field, which contributes to Boyle being regarded as the founder of modern chemistry.

More importantly, as the organisers have noted, the year coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize being awarded to Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867 - 1934) — the perhaps most renown among female scientists in any field. As such it presents an ample opportunity to highlight the work of the many female chemists (like, among many others, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, Lise Meitner, Clara Immerwahr, Ida Noddack, Rachel Fuller Brown, Agnes Pockels, Rosalind Franklin, or Irène Joliot-Curie), as well as female scientists in other fields, whose contributions to our knowledge of the universe we inhabit generally remain widely unrecognised and unacknowledged. Chemistry, after all, is the one field of science which connects material sciences, astronomy, physics, biology, and geology, through its concern with the very building blocks of everything (atoms and their subatomic particles: protons, electrons, and neutrons).

Most of the year's official events are organised through national chemical societies and regional chemical federations, hence for the most part consist of rather exclusive or trade oriented events — such as conferences, congresses, fairs, meetings, and symposia. However, there are a number of "outreach" events planned as well, including lectures, open discussions, workshops, and art exhibitions actually aimed at increasing public (rather than fellow chemists) appreciation of chemistry. Luckily, by the very nature of chemistry, the general public need not rely on "official" efforts to educate itself. As the science of matter and the changes it undergoes, chemistry — through its concentration on the composition, behaviour, structure, and properties of matter — is perhaps the most substantial, hands-on science, which can be practically engaged in by anyone with practically anything.

Everyone engages in it everyday, through simple acts like boiling an egg, without necessarily being aware of it: chemistry is all around us. With a little help form the nearest public library, and an assortment of ordinary household items, we can all easily set about exploring the wonders of the matter that surrounds us, binds us together, and makes us what we are from the comfort of our own homes.

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