Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

The Future For Chemistry

The RSC should be complimented for its "Future of the Chemical Sciences" initiative, but this raises the question, is anything seriously missing from the output so far. I think the answer is, unfortunately, yes.
First, consider the four plausible scenarios. There is no doubt that chemistry will be needed to address many of the problems facing the world. That suggests there will always be a job for chemists, although not necessarily every type of chemist, so that is well identified, if not somewhat obvious. Of course some of the other options contradict this option.
The concept that we can have "do it yourselves" chemists where chemical processes that are stocked away in computers, and the future chemist can go to a "black box", key in what he wants, the computer tells him what feedstocks it needs, the chemist gets them, fills up some hoppers or whatever, presses "go", and waits for the product to come out, neatly bottled, might be plausible eventually, but this does not really require much in the way of chemistry, and it suggests there is not much future for synthetic chemists. This, to me, is an invitation to disaster, because like it or not, you should understand what you are doing. How many tragedies would there have to be before people were stopped from making something that was highly dangerous?
The third option, "no chemists" speaks for itself, and it is interesting that it focuses on "no new fundamental research". The free market chemistry option simply focuses on funding, and on all funding coming from the private sector. Neither of these options offers much hope for chemistry making our future better.
What do we note about these scenarios? What I see is a fixation on solving immediate problems, with the top problem being jobs for emerging students, and the implication is that current education, etc., is unsuited for purpose. How did we come to this? As far as I know, the major problems we face now have arisen largely because people with little knowledge of science have been at the helm, and the free market has let them at it. Exactly how will the free market solve the problems of climate change or pollution when it is the financial interests of certain players to keep doing what is counterproductive? The only thing stopping them now is regulations, and the voice of those who know. If nobody knows, where then?
What I notice is missing is the concept of trying to understand our discipline. There is no doubt that experienced chemists in a small section of chemistry know all about that small section very well, although whether it is understanding, or more the ability to recall what happened last time something like this was tried, is another matter. I have this feeling that chemists have now become very keen on "how to do something", but seem to have lost the spirit of discovery, wherein we might ask, why does x, y, z happen? Am I right? Who stands up and confesses they want to understand the basis for what they are doing? I do, but how many others are there? I recall earlier in the year I put up a blog post that raised the issue that maybe the energies of the A – B molecules of the group 1 elements were additive for their component atoms. That verges on heresy, and despite the evidence it may well be wrong, but nobody said a thing. So, what I would like to see is at least a little encouragement for understanding. After all, chemistry might be the first science to have all its fundamentals settled. We know all of chemistry is determined by quantum mechanics and electromagnetic theory. Why don't we want to use these a little more deeply?
Finally, here is a little example problem. In my novel, "A Face on Cydonia" the story needed small amounts of powerful explosives, so I "invented" a molecule: tetranitrotetrahedrane. My argument was that apart from its propensity to turn itself into carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas with serious vigour, it would be one of the more stable tetrahedranes. Can you guess why that might be? Or why I think it might be? Then, do you want little black box synthesizers in the hands of some of the terrorists who seem to want to go around blowing stuff up?
Posted by Ian Miller on Oct 2, 2016 10:46 PM Europe/London

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