Who is a Chemist?

I noticed a story in the Wall Street Journal entitled “In Quest for ‘Legal High,’ Chemists Outfox Law.” So who really qualifies as a chemist?

If you peruse the article, you learn there is a burgeoning subculture that makes psychoactive substances by small tinkerings of the chemical structure of approved drugs. A simple trip through a rotary evaporator then produces a powder that can be snorted or smoked to get high legally. You can even buy the stuff online at

Converting one substance to another is indeed the essence of chemistry, so on a certain level this practice qualifies its practitioners to be called a chemist. But so would baking a loaf of bread or using a two-part epoxy adhesive. But hey, can you claim to be a physicist just because you exist under the influence of gravity?

Perhaps it is over reaction to the unhelpful mad-scientist stereotype, but reading the WSJ title caused me to wince reflexively because of the association of chemist with a practice that appears to have no socially redeeming value. 

So here’s my definition of a chemist: a person who manipulates the composition of matter to either (a) advance our basic molecular understanding of the universe or (b) create new substances useful to the betterment of people and society.

I’m sure the Wall Street Journal will notice and behave accordingly in future writings.

Posted In: Education

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