Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Chemistry Popularity Conundrum

Last week (October 16-22) was National Chemistry Week in the US. Did you celebrate? By all rights, it could have been the biggest one yet, since we’re deep into the tenth month of the International Year of Chemistry (#IYC2011). Did you see any news specials? Did Time or Newsweek run an exposé?

Probably not, but why not? When scientists cracked the human genetic code, front pages everywhere relayed the tense horse-race between Venter’s TIGR and Collins’s Human Genome Project. Whenever physicists flip the switch at the Large Hadron Collider, the public dreams of mini-black holes and cheating Einstein’s relativity. Chemistry, however, always seems to be the black sheep of the gang; DuPont’s slogan for nearly 50 years was “Better Things for Better Living . . .Through Chemistry,” until the final portion of the tagline was dropped in the mid-‘80s.
What creates the chemistry image problem? It’s true that many of the “pure chemistry” accomplishments of the last 30 years have gone largely unnoticed: ask someone at a local restaurant about triblock copolymers, organocatalysis, brevetoxin, or dye-sensitized solar cells. Applied chemistry fares a bit better, from polymers to paints, lasers to ligands, but the public still attributes many interface discoveries to other fields – drug chemistry gets lumped into “Health and Medicine,” or water-splitting tossed in with “New Energy.”
Don't let the test-tube on the front fool you.
The phenomenon even reaches general science books. On a whim, I opened up National Geographic’s The Science Book (bonus tagline – Everything You Need to Know about the World and How it Works) at a book store last week. A hefty volume, coming in at 432 pp., thus you might expect the “central science” to occupy at least 30% . . . right?
Wrong. Page count: biology, ecology, and sociology – 142 pages.  Physics, math, and ‘technology’ – 111 pages. Chemistry? 26 pages.
Does this all come down to poor public relations? Biology sells itself on some big questions: origin of life, evolution, ending disease, and genetic engineering. Physics moves out onto an even wider plane: does God exist?, fundamental particles, dark energy, string theory, and black holes. Ask most people about the word chemical, however, and their connotation is tangibly negative, associating the word with poisonous, pollution, ersatz stand-ins for “genuine” flavors or fragrances, artificial, corrosive, or toxic.
Prof. David MacMillan, Princeton
Not that none have addressed the issue – just recently, David MacMillan, editor of Chemical Science and accomplished organic chemist, called for increased outreach:    
‘One major thing chemists need to work on is their ability to promote their work to other scientists and the public. This is something we are really not good at in general and if we improved, it would really open doors for us and improve society’s perception of chemistry and its impact.'

ACS attempts much the same with their Chemistry Ambassadors program, and the Interactive Periodic Table of Videos surely adds some demonstration “Wow!” factor. But the days of science-themed programs (Mr. Wizard, NOVA, How it’s Made, even the tongue-in-cheek Look Around You) seem to have waned, and Mythbusters can’t save the whole genre single-handedly. Linus Pauling, Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, and Oliver Sacks have held down much of the science PR fort, but we still haven’t found the next great chemistry “populizer.” So, what are we to do?

Can these guys hold down the science program genre forever?
Well, I’m not the first to tackle this question. Luckily, many have gone before me: see Dr. Free Ride’s post on Scientopia (“navel-gazing” sounds so apropos) or the CHEMisperceptions Blog Roundtable from early 2011 hosted at ScienceGeist. Start there, and glance through the situations and stories these authors present. See where you stand.

And think. Just think.
Think about how you’ll answer the dreaded “So, what do you do?” question at the next holiday party. Think about a show you wish were on TV, DVD, or radio that covered breaking-edge reactions or materials, but isn’t. Think about how you might tell such a story. Think about what types of jobs you, as a chemist, might envision working in 10, 20 years . . . if they even exist right now! Think of the reactions, equations, elements, polymers, or drugs (heh) that really ‘get you up’ in the morning.
When you’ve thought awhile, narrow down your list to one or two things you truly enjoy. Write a short blog post or a newspaper article. Send an email. Take some pictures. Tell your kids. Teach a short course. Write a book. Produce a show. Anything you can do that creates new, high-quality content to help improve the stead of science in the world will do.
Idealistic?  Sure.   
Dreamy?  You got me.
. . . I’d like to think so.
(Note: You don’t have to start from nothing - there’s quite a few folks already working on the problem. For general chemistry blogs, start at CENtral Science. Work your way around to Chemistry Blog, Discover Magazine, SciAm Blogs, and Popular Science. Chemjobber, The Curious Wavefunction, and ChemBark help capture some of the current chemical zeitgeist, while Totally Synthetic and BRSM cover my favorite topic, chemical synthesis. For health and medicine, try In The Pipeline or The Medicine Show. Want books? Napoleon’s Buttons, The Poisoner’s Handbook, Mauve, and Uncle Tungsten are a few favorites. On a personal note, although he’s not formally a chemist, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? helped me appreciate how one can use scientific curiosity to change the world.)


  1. Maybe it's not the PR but the content. Perhaps chemistry just isn't that interesting to the general public and, while important, doesn't deserve an equal presence in The Science Book given the profound questions in other fields. What are the great questions of chemistry? The origin of homochirality and life are the only two that I can think of at the moment.

  2. @Anon - Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I contend that a subject is only as interesting as we make it; running gels and mixing cell culture isn't inherently interesting, either, but if you tell people you're working to cure cancer, it comes off better.

    I refer you to Philip Ball's article on his blog ( on Chemistry's "Great Challenges" for the next decade. Among them is artificial photosynthesis, graphene, better ways to make complex molecules, and exploring the outer limits of chemical bonding and new elements. I, personally, would echo Ash of Curious Wavefunction, and say that, in terms of making exquisitely-tailored modern cancer therapeutics that are specific and selective, we're still far off.

  3. Great thoughts, @See Arr Oh.
    To toot my own horn a little bit, I just had a commentary in Nature Chemistry on this very topic ( $$-for access. email me if you'd like to read it and can't get to it).

    I think that chemistry is such an afterthought to most of the general population. It also seems to be very separated from their everyday lives, even though nothing could be further from the truth. As far as "strategies" go, I currently have two favorites. 1) Talk about the chemistry that people do every day without knowing. Cooking is the primary example. Unfortunately, though there has been a huge effort (DuPont's slogan is one example of this) to convince the public that chemistry is helping people's every day life - by making materials and other new technologies, I don't think that it has captured the attention of very many. So, we need to shift gears to something else. 2) I think that we need to find new ways to "bring life" to chemicals. What I mean is that I we should be talking about chemicals as living things - they have characteristics, they change, they live.
    Those are just my current, humble thoughts. I LOVE when people talk about these issues.

  4. It was many -- MANY -- moons ago, but I wrote a story in New Scientist ( that at least partially addressed the issue that Anonymous brings up: chemistry's perceived lack of "laws" and of philosophical questions.

    As Matt and See Arr Oh also suggest, I would argue that you don't necessarily have to invoke "big questions" to interest the public.

  5. I don't really count myself as a great chemistry communicator, but I do think you're right, SAO:

    "Anything you can do that creates new, high-quality content to help improve the stead of science in the world will do."


  6. Anthony HardwickeOctober 24, 2011 10:55 AM

    A large amount of the responsibility for raising the profile of chemistry lies with subject associations like the the American Chemical Society and (here in the UK) the Royal Society of Chemistry.

    I'd like to see the subject associations work more with enthusiastic young chemistry teachers and science communicators.

  7. I will second CJ's comments on the following statement:

    "Anything you can do that creates new, high-quality content to help improve the stead of science in the world will do."


  8. "What's in a name?", published in Nature [1,2], explains that recent chemistry breakthroughs were not perceived by the general public because were appropriated by other disciplines as physics and biology.

    It must be also interesting to check the recent book "THE PUBLIC IMAGE OF CHEMISTRY" [3].

    Finally, this recent definition of science [4] emphasizes aspects of chemistry do not considered by physicists and philosophers when defining science [5]





    As Eric Scerri and others philosophers of chemistry have noted, philosophers of science have traditionally taken science as synonym for physics.

  9. Here's a conversation piece:

    It's marine natural products extraction. It gets talked about as ecology or drug discovery, but not as an element (pardon the pun) of chemistry. Big sigh.

  10. @Chemjobber, @Matt - As someone much pithier than me once said: "All psychology is really biology, all biology really chemistry, all chemistry really physics, and all physics really math." :)

  11. Thanks for mentioning my work Juan Ramon and thanks for recalling your excellent article Lila.

    For more on the relationship between chemistry and physics please see my new website at