Reuniting Chemical Disciplines, Separated at Birth

Reuniting Chemical Disciplines, Separated at Birth

Author: David Bradley

Polymaths vs. Specialism

For a time in scientific history, multidisciplinarity was all there was. Almost every natural philosopher was a polymath and would pursue with almost equal vigor knowledge of all elements of the world around us. Of course, today polymaths are few and far between, most scientists home in on a particular area of interest in their early training and become specialists in that field. There are exceptions to the rule and there are efforts to cross-pollinate disciplines, but in general: each to their own.

There are benefits to specialism. The old aphorism: “Jack of all trades, master of none” often holds true, hence, the demise of the polymath, one might suggest. However, there are disadvantages in that certain areas of science diverge where no intrinsic distinction truly exists. Take materials chemistry and natural product chemistry. Organic chemists Horst Kunz and Klaus Müllen of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, writing in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), suggest that “Chemistry research is an eloquent, yet extremely complex discipline consisting of a diverse range of topics.”

Each sub-discipline within the broad field requires researchers to focus with precision on isolated topics and severely limits the potential cross-talk between fields. Chemist polymaths are as rare in our discipline as they are in any other. However, some sub-disciplines have perhaps lost sight of their mutual underpinnings and this is to the disadvantage of those who pursue each in isolation. Conferences, journals, and other outlets reinforce the bifurcation – natural as opposed to synthetic – and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Human Curiosity vs. Economic Interest

Kunz and Müllen lay some of the blame for the unnatural division squarely on the current ethos of industrialized societies where it has become almost obligatory for scientific research to be undertaken, not for the purest of intentions – human curiosity – but for its potential to be converted into economically viable products and technology. The natural product chemist will focus on discovering and defining compounds that have potential in pharmacology, agriculture, and other fields whereas the materials chemist will focus on designing and refining agents, such as polymers with engineering or related uses. The team argues that with respect to fundamental scientific research, chemistry was in “a more favorable position a century ago”. At that time the polymath was prevalent, “scientists could follow their thirst for knowledge without the pressure to thrive within an individual specialty.”

At the end of the 19th Century Emil Fischer in Berlin, well known for his sugary projections, had scientists from a wide range of disciplines working in his laboratories: synthetic organic chemists, biochemists, nuclear researchers, and specialists in microscopic analysis. They worked together synergistically, the team suggests and this laboratory style persisted into the 20th Century with the Nobel Prize-winning laboratories of Otto Hahn, Fritz Pregl, Hans Fischer, Otto Diels, Adolf Windaus, Otto Warburg, and Karl Landsteiner, they suggest.

“The pressure to maintain funding forces scientists to focus on a narrow spectrum of approaches, limiting their freedom to explore innovative alternatives. In essence, the pressure to reach the final target restricts the paths that are investigated, and naturally leads to the further separation of chemistry sub-disciplines,” the team asserts. Fundamentally, however, chemists are chemists. They are interested in how the connections between atoms give rise to interesting structures and how this, in turn, endows them with their particular physical and chemical characteristics, and, of course, their function and potential utility.

Kunz and Müllen suggest that while sub-disciplines are required to some extent it is the synergies between different areas that will allow chemistry to progress. Form and function know nothing of the chemical genre within which they have been squeezed. At the bottom line, there should be no difference in researching and manipulating compounds comprising carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen atoms, etc., whether they are hooked together to form the latest blockbuster drug or a monomer starting material for a new superhydrophobic polymer. It’s all atoms, after all.

New Generation of Polymaths

The team concludes that the very foundations of chemical science, the education of new chemists, can underpin a new generation of polymaths, scientists who can work efficiently on individual topics but recognize the potential of synergies wrought by understanding and utilizing the many other niches within the science. The way forward, the team says is for the chemical community to create, “a scientific atmosphere which favors general knowledge combined with an open-minded, yet focused research interest is best generated by an education in which students are not just forced to learn, but are inspired to study, reflect, and collect their own experiences.”

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