Chemistry is the science of things that we can see and that we can control.
When I was young, I never gave chemistry a second thought. I loved the grand sweep of biological evolution, with its single unifying idea and its endless ramifications, every twig on life’s branch subjected to a neat exegesis by my idol, Stephen Jay Gould. I loved the vastness of space, the unimaginably gigantic and inhuman universe subjected to the breathless exposition of Carl Sagan. I was brought up in an atmosphere suffused with geology, and I cannot remember ever not knowing that I lived on a thin chunk of crust moving inexorably towards Asia. These, the descriptive sciences, the historical sciences, were where I lived. I wanted to know where I was; I wanted to know where I was going.
It is not enough to know. If you actually want to do something, all of these sciences have serious flaws. You cannot crash galaxies together to see what will happen. You cannot evolve your own species of toothed whale. You cannot smear an archipelago onto the Pacific coast of North America. You can only watch, and collect data, and hope for a ‘natural laboratory’ which will test whatever hypothesis you have developed. The essential bits of the historical sciences, the most interesting bits, are inaccessible to our tinkering.
As I grew older, I grew to lust after the secret and paradoxical wisdom of the physicists, the world of Schrödinger’s cat and Lorenz’s butterfly and the modest goal of the Theory of Everything. Here again, I was driven by the desire to know what was going on. Once upon a time physics was a science where you could do things.
But now, alas, they have mostly been done. Now you need obscene amounts of money to do experiments and whatever result you get can be explained by the theoreticians. Is that falsifiability?
Actually, I must be honest. I cannot discount physics. I am a failed physicist. Somewhere among the ordinary differential equations I got lost, and fell off the mathematical billycart. When I say that the great achievements of what we call ‘Modern Physics’ ended in the 1930s, and that since then it is chemistry and its biological metastases that have transformed the world, you must discount it as sour grapes. Likewise, when I proclaim: ‘physics has given we chemists our tools, and now its job is done.’ Sour grapes.
Essentially, chemistry drew me in because it let me play with liquid nitrogen and fire.
If you actually want to do something, chemistry is the only science worth considering. With physics, we can control things, but we can rarely see them or even imagine them. We can see the subjects of the historical sciences everywhere, but cannot control them. Chemistry is the science of things we can both see and control.
Chemistry is called by some of its practitioners the ‘Central Science’, a term that I have always found naff. It is the ‘Human-Sized Science’.
A few more facts about chemistry:
Chemists are allowed to:
(a) Appropriate any part of physics they like and call it ‘physical chemistry’
(b) Invade and subvert any ‘softer’ science they like and turn it into chemistry.
It is no coincidence that so many Deans, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Vice Chancellors and Prime Ministers (e.g., Margaret Thatcher) have been chemists. Those whose job it is to manipulate matter naturally want to manipulate it wherever they find it.
- ► 2012 (13)
- ► 2008 (21)
- ▼ April (6)