Thursday, March 30, 2006

The "New" Chemistry.

Certainly in the U.K., the subject of "Chemistry" appears to be in free-fall decline, judging from the closure of various well-respected university departments which represent that discipline. I would like to call attention to an important figure in the history of Chemistry: William Allen Miller. Miller was Professor of chemistry at King's College, London, between 1845 and 1870, the year of his death. He began by studying medicine, at King's, but became a demonstrator in chemistry there in 1840. In 1841, he became assistant to Daniell (who was the inventor of the "Daniell Cell", and a founding father of modern electrochemistry), and in 1845 succeeded him as Professor of chemistry; in the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). Miller was 28 years old at the time - a young man. He later served twice as President of "The Chemical Society" (1855-57; 1865-67) - the founding forerunner of "The Royal Society of Chemistry".
The range of Miller's scientific work is remarkable, although, in these days before "specialisation" happened, it was not uncommon for scientists to be just that, "scientists", and work in what would now be regarded as formally diverse fields within the separate disciplines of biology, medicine, chemistry, physics and agriculture ("environment" had not been coined yet). So, among his many activities, Miller was an accomplished mineralogical analyst, who brought the classical methods of analysis to bear upon various phosphates and other salts and minerals. He also served as a consultant for the Western Gaslight Company, to improve their facility at Vauxhall, Surrey, and also in undertaking "the analysis of particulate residues and other by-products of incomplete combustion in an industrial setting", (i.e. there were concerns about pollution, even then).
He was a pioneer in applying spectroscopic analysis in chemistry, of which there is one rather spectacular example. Miller was invited by his friend William Huggins, the astronomer, to collaborate with him in making measurements of spectral-lines from stars: he needed a comparison (fingerprint) with the spectra of authentic chemical elements, which Miller could provide. In August 1864, Huggins pointed his spectroscope at the planetary nebula NGC 6543 (HIV 37) in the Draco galaxy. He realised that he was looking at the spectrum of a luminous gas, and that its elements were in common with those present in several other nebulae, so providing proof of cosmological evolution. In 1866 Huggins was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, and in the following year he and Miller together received the Gold-Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Miller also wrote a number of books, including: "Introduction to the Study of Inorganic Chemistry"; "On the Importance of Chemistry to Medicine"; "Practical Hints to the Medical Student"; "Elements of Agricultural Chemistry"; "Elements of Chemistry - theoretical and practical". Elements of Chemistry was published in three volumes: "Chemical Physics", "Inorganic Chemistry", "Organic Chemistry". I did buy the latter two books, 30 or so years-ago, at a total cost of 55 new pence (which was quite a lot out of my pocket-money at the time): they are worth considerably more than that now, being first-editions, but their real value is the wealth of information contained in them. Although "Elements" is described as theoretical and practical, there was, of course, no detailed theoretical framework for chemistry (e.g. electronic structure and chemical bonding) until the advent of quantum mechanics in the next century. However, atoms and molecules were recognised, and molecular formulae were determined by methods which are now referred to as "microanalysis". The results were good too, despite the fact that the equipment used was, by modern standards, comparatively primitive. [One point of note is that the combining-weight of carbon was taken as 6, not 12 as we now know it to be, and so it is necessary to divide the number of carbon atoms in a quoted formula by 2 to get the correct value].
An intuitive dimension may also be glimpsed in the creation of these works. Miller draws the distinction between "organic compounds" and "organized bodies", as he describes them: "Organic compounds possess a definite composition and often a perfectly defined crystalline structure. On the other hand, organized bodies such as muscular tissue and nervous structure never exhibit any tendency to crystalline structure and are so connected with each other as to form parts of a system, each of which is incomplete if severed from the remainder".
He considers further the nature of living organisms (I paraphrase him slightly): "A living body has the power of assimilating fresh particles, and of arranging them in the special form which characterises the class to which the individual organism belongs. This, physiological chemistry, is the most difficult branch of the science. Its difficulty depends not upon the obscurity which enshrouds the nature of life itself; for the essential nature of every description of force, and of the mysterious tie which exists between matter and force, has baffled the penetration of the profoundest philosophers, and belongs to an order of truths to which the human intellect probably may not be permitted in this sphere of existence to attain".
Since then, molecular biology has emerged, and so our knowledge is such that some of the processes of life are perhaps less mysterious, but Miller's reflections remain profound. But what has happened to the science of Chemistry since the 1850's? Clearly, the subject in all its aspects has exploded (no pun intended in the popular view of chemistry, as "stinks and bangs"!); mainly through advances in analytical technology that in the 1850's could not have been dreamed of. It has underpinned the development of the industrialised nations of the world. Chemistry still provides a highly significant contribution to the U.K. national economy; though probably less so than banking and the financial sector generally, which is what fuels the "service-sector" that underpins modern society.
But if chemistry is so important, then the subject should be in a healthy state: well-supported for the research and teaching of it, and a popular choice for students enrolling at our universities? Whereas, in fact, chemistry is under considerable threat. It seems poignant that King's College, where Miller was professor of chemistry, looks set to close its chemistry department, with Queen Mary (College) now following suite, on top of Exeter and Swansea (I almost applied for a chair in the latter institution, but decided against it - wisely as it transpired!); and these are merely the latest on quite a long list of closed chemistry departments in the U.K. The most common cause of science departments being closed is a lack of student numbers; and chemistry (along with physics and maths) has lost popularity.
Moreover, the human-race is also under considerable threat, as our environment seems poised against us: either in retaliation for our abuses of it, or simply by way of the patterns of Nature. We are threatened generally by pollution, and more specifically by greenhouse-gases which may contribute to global-warming, but we require technical strategies with which to calm these assailants. Only scientifically qualified people can inform the appropriate bodies (e.g. governments and industries) so that the correct decisions can be made, as opposed to badly-considered, emotional reactions to problems, that might do more harm than good. We therefore need more students studying chemistry in the first instance, then taking it up as a profession - but how can this be achieved?
While there are laudable campaigns, e.g. by The Royal Society of Chemistry, to promote the subject at the school-level and among younger people generally, the most effective means would probably be financial. Perhaps the government should cover (some-of) the top-up fee for well-qualified candidates to enroll on chemistry courses, or provide some other financial incentive, such as a prize of £5-10K, say, for staying-the-course and achieving a "good-honours-degree" in chemistry.
Alternatively, those who finally employ chemistry (and other science) graduates, mainly government departments and industry, could simply pay them better. I note finally that my alma mater, the School of Molecular Sciences at the University of Sussex, which in its hayday could proclaim 2 Nobel Laureates and 7 Fellows of the Royal Society, and which awarded me a Higher Doctorate (D.Sc) in 2003, has just announced the closure of its Chemistry Department. Ye Gods! Is nowhere safe among the cash-only British University system?!

Adapted and updated from an address given by Professor Chris Rhodes, at the Holiday Inn, Liverpool, 27-11-03, following the award of prizes to chemistry students in the North West, at a ceremony hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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