Why is chemistry the "scary" science? Image courtesy flickr user ivzm.

Books with the word “chemistry” in their title often sell poorly, though books that include lots of chemistry often end up doing well. Take, for example, Deborah Blum's The Poisoner’s Handbook, Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, or Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon: all bestsellers. So what’s in a word? Plenty, according to the authors of “Communicating chemistry for public engagement,” published recently in the journal Nature Chemistry.

Chemistry is the disadvantaged science, handicapped by its lack of grand theories and narratives, its “toxic death” (an evocative term coined by a colleague of mine) role in World War I (poison gas), and its environmental and human destruction (DDT, Bhopal, thalidomide, the ozone hole, etc.). As such the only role that chemistry plays in the public imagination is that of the villain. But hang on a minute! What about physics and the atom bomb? There’s a reason World War II is called “the physicists’ war,” and there’s no shortage of movies in which atom bombs destroy the world, or their resulting radiation creates rampaging monsters.

I do think the authors of “Communicating chemistry” are on to something when they cite chemistry’s lack of grand narratives, which certainly hampers storytelling. It’s much easier to identify the heroes in biology and physics (Darwin and Newton, for example) than it is in chemistry. But the authors themselves fall into the common trap of disconnecting chemistry from peoples’ lives by focusing only on chemistry done by experts. They forget that chemistry has always been the science most closely connected to everyday life, before the discipline was ever formalized. Cooking, fermentation, textile production, making cosmetics: all are chemistry, and all are activities people have been pursing for thousands of years. Chemistry is the mundane science par excellence, the science of the everyday stuff in our lives.

And there is another grand narrative of chemistry the authors ignore: alchemy. Up until recently chemists have run away from their alchemical origins, branding it pseudoscience. But from a practical perspective alchemists were all about chemical reactions, which formed the basis of modern chemistry.

Physicists and biologists embrace their origins; perhaps its time for chemists to do the same. If not, it might be wise to invent another word for what they do.

Michal Meyer is editor in chief of Chemical Heritage.

Communicating Chemistry for Public Engagement [Nature Chemistry]
Chemistry Kit Chemophobia [Periodic Tabloid]

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