The Protochemists Among Us

So, the term “chemist”? When did we first start using it? And does the label  artificially separate scientists from the rest of us? After all, don’t all of us daily practice chemistry? In countless moments, like the one in which we light the CH4-rich gas on our stoves and put on a pan of H2O to boil.

I’ve been mulling over the disconnect – our chemical lives, our lack of awareness of them –  since the World Chemistry Congress in San Juan, Puerto Rico earlier this month.  While there,  I was part of a symposium on chemistry and culture and that lost connection – between life and science – visibly troubled the scientists also in the program.

“Chemistry is not only at the school or the laboratory,” said Liliana Mammino, a chemistry professor at South Africa’s University of Vanda. “It’s around us everywhere. If we can’t relate the information at school to everyday life, there’s a danger that the people we think are learning don’t really understand at all.”

The precise origin of the word “chemistry” arose from a tangle of ancient civilizations, from Egyptian to Greek to Arabic, an idea that evolved into the word “alchemia” and then became “chemia” in the 16th century. By the late 1500s,  the idea of a specialized science of chemistry was just starting to flicker in English texts.

But Mammino pointed out that people had been making use of chemistry long before even the spark of a word arose. Our ancestors built fires, cooked food, used dyes and paints, made pottery, smelted metals – every one of those activities making use of chemical reactions.  “Our everyday chemists never rejected any material,” she said. “Dung and urine were used to bind dyes in ancient Egypt.”

Chemistry Nobel-Laureate Roald Hoffmann, another speaker at the symposium, referred to such practices as “protochemistry”. Like Mammino, he cited the use of urine in fixing dyes, notably the indigo blues beloved by the Roman civilization. Most of those gorgeous hues came from Mediterranean molluscs and from the fluffy looking woad plant. They tended to fade out of cloth after about three washes, Hoffmann noted, until the dye craftsman adopted the use of urine as a fixing agent.

Long before the word “chemistry” arrived, Hoffmann continued, the Incas of Peru were using a sophisticated mixture of salts in order to gold-plate some of their jewelry and statues.  African tribes were smelting copper, had learned that the metal reliably dripped out of malachite ore when the smoke turned greenish. And the Romans had begun smelting iron lead ore on a major scale, making the pipes that fed their waterworks.

Roman lead pipe, Bath, England

“Ice cores in Greenland show evidence of lead from Greek and Roman smelting,” Hoffmann said. “Pollution is nothing new. We’ve just found more efficient ways today of fouling our own nests.” But both he and Mammino proposed that our protochemical history is also a fascinating way to remind people today that they too are everyday chemists. “It’s important that chemistry is not perceived as coming from somewhere else,” Mammino said. “It’s not something alien.”

And that really, as symposium organizer Bassam Shakashiri said was the primary message. That chemistry isn’t purely academic, something separate, something unknown to those of us who don’t work under that label.

And that professional chemists should take pleasure in sharing that message. “We now live in the most advanced scientific society in the history of humankind,”  he said. “But the science-rich and science-poor sectors gap is widening at a very big rate with poor consequences for the rest of society.

Shakashiri, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, is also president-elect of the American Chemical Society. And a profound believer in sharing science with the public. “Science literacy is something we should all be concerned about. Science literacy is an attitude. We are responsible for the communication of our values and our virtues.”

And we, the everyday chemists out there, the descendents of those protochemists, we should remember our side of this bargain as well. And as our H2O boils, as we watch a classic phase change of liquid to vapor, water to steam, we should remember that we’re actually naturals at this particular job.

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17 Responses to The Protochemists Among Us

  1. Chemists have it particularly tough when it comes to popularizing the amazing things that chemistry can do. Chemistry can be said to sit between physics and biology, each of which speak to fundamental questions about the meaning of our lives.

    For example, physics addresses where the universe came from, its fundamental nature and where it is going, whilst biology describes to us how life evolves and has personal and implications for all of us through its link to medicine that the scientific laity easily perceive. Physics has quantum theory and relativity, biology the theory of evolution. All of these have implications for religion, for example, and much of the world’s population is religious, so innevitably physics and biology get discussed in that context as well.

    Chemistry has a tougher time capturing people’s imagination. Much of what chemistry is is actually engineering; chemical synthesis is the art of constructing molecules much more than testing hypotheses about them, let alone hypotheses that are easily perceived as potentially revolutionary for humankind or any deep existential questions.
    Of course chemistry has done that, as for example through the development of immonosuppressants and even simple reactions like the Haber-Bosch process, which feeds a third of the world through its use in the manufacture of artificial fertilizer. But it’s harder for people to connect with that or to see it in their daily lives. It’s just hard to compete with quantum theory, black holes and Darwin when it comes to capturing imaginations.

    That is a shame because even a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry can position one’s mind to be very analytical about a range of fascinating topics. It’s the central science, so it puts the person who knows chemistry in the middle of it all, able to have conversations with all the other sciences. But unfortunately, there’s not just the PR problem. There’s also the fact that chemistry is taught so very badly. It’s presented as memory work in schools, a chore. That’s a deep shame and something chemists should seek to change if they want to gain more public recognition. 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, but I don’t know what impact that will have.

  2. DrFreddy says:

    Luke, I copy/pasted your reply into a new text file. Cannot ever remember doing this before, from someone’s reply to a blog post. The original post is awesome, but your response… I would be first in line to buy your book if you ever chose to expand on the topic! (Meanwhile, I might steal portions of it and recycle it on my page.) Thank you both!

  3. I think chemistry is a great subject to explain to people and students because there are so many examples. I was particularly pleased to see Bassam Shakashiri quoted. I joined U of Wisconsin faculty in 1974 and was in the team led by Bassam teaching freshman chemistry. He was a great mentor and had lots of anecdotes and class demos to keep the class interest.

    A couple of years later, with a chance to return to Canada, I joined the McGill University faculty. It is not an exaggeration to say that I learned a lot (and laughed a lot) about teaching methods from Bassam. Even back in 1974, long before laptops, he had “Chem tips” which were a quick weekly test which were computer graded (but not used for marking) just so a student could anomalously find out how s/he were doing.

    Although you have said a lot more, to me chemistry comes straight from the word alchemy.

    I have a blog on the Thermodynamics of Weight Loss

    and the Chemical Kinetics of Sobering up

    which you might enjoy.

  4. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks for highlighting Luke’s comments. Agreed – one of the best and most thoughtful comments I’ve ever gotten and a reminder of the two-way pleasure of blogging. The blogger learns from her very smart readers!

  5. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks for this terrifically smart and thoughtful comment. Yes, it does seem that chemistry doesn’t challenge people’s imaginations the way some other fields of science do these days – hadn’t thought about the way it’s positioned regarding biology and physics and that’s a wholly excellent point. It is – I think, I hope – something that science writers like myself can take on because, unlike scientists, we more easily blur those boundaries or draw connections in different ways. I was thinking about this when a friend of mine at NPR told me last week that he was interested in doing some stories on the early biology of life, centered on the Urey-Miller work. Perhaps because I’ve spent this last year writing about chemistry, I said to him, not only that I loved the idea (origin of life, how can you go wrong?) but that the chemistry of it is what makes it so fascinating to me. So I think some of this is the way we frame the stories. And, again, you are right about the dismal way we tend to teach chemistry and, in fact, most sciences, especially at the high school level. Part of it is that your K-12 system is really designed to filter out future scientists rather than to create a science-literate population. And I think that it’s more than time for us to start considering the second part of that equation, to create science classes for those who are never going to be scientists that really teach them not just that the subject is fascinating but that it is, in fact, essential to their everyday lives.

  6. Well, thank you both very much for your kind remarks.

    The following was going to be a short comment initially, but then it unfurled into a colossal rant. I hope that’s ok.

    I would just like to expand on one point that perhaps I only alluded to previously.
    When I mentioned quantum theory and evolution in physics and biology, respectively, I meant in part to refer to just how revolutionary those theories were when they arrived. They completely changed centuries-old perspectives. (They might be though of as what Kuhn called paradigm shifts.)

    So what about chemistry? It has, for certain, benefited from quantum theory in that it it allowed us to learn about rudimentary things like bonding and, these days, so much more (computational chemistry, for instance). Likewise, evolutionary biology and modern (bio)chemistry and medicinal chemistry are intimitely intertwined; we are starting to understand evolution and biology generally at the molecular level quite well now. But these are benefits that have come to chemistry whilst it’s been swimming in the slipstream. Chemistry itself has had no revolution of that magnitude. It has had no quantum theory or evolution of its own.
    And that’s a strange situation to be in. Chemistry is responsible for innumerable benefits to humanity. Just look around the room you’re in. What doesn’t have chemistry behind it? And yet chemists aren’t able to say “we have the theory that explains the fundamental nature of the universe/life on earth/anything else.”

    As a chemist, it would be a bit too much for me to say I feel somehow inadequate because of this, but despite all I can say about the subject I love and its marvels, I still sometimes get that niggling sensation like I’m not quite where the most amazing magic happens. Like I chose the wrong path. And that’s to say nothing that as an organic chemist I’m more of an engineer than a scientist, as I described earlier.

    I don’t know the numbers involved, but it’s occassionally said in chemist circles that it’s harder for us than for some others to get published in Nature or Science. (And I don’t mean Nature Chemistry.) It seems like biology in particular dominates on that front. Discoveries there seem to be recognized somehow as intrinsically more exciting. And even the likes of J. Am. Chem. Soc. focus more and more heavily on what resentful out-and-out chemists sometimes term “bio schmio”. Five years ago, would the artificial DNA article ( have been published in JACS? I can’t see it. It seems like in my area, homogeneous catalysis, fewer and fewer papers are making it in to JACS, and the exodus to non-general titles will probably grow now that new journals by the ACS (Catalysis), RSC (Cat. Sci. Technol.) and Wiley (ChemCatChem) have come online. The same could be said for other areas of chemistry, too.

    It’s hard not to feel a bit stale or flat-footed throwing the same old palladium acetate or ruthenium trichloride around (even if in cutting edge research), when all around you physicists are unravelling dark matter and hunting for the Higgs boson (some of them with the most impressive experimental equipment in history) whilst biologists report everymore about the mysteries of life. And there I am, with my 63% yield and no Chemical Theory of Everything to give me solace and no giant NMR machine under the alps.

    Ok. Rant over.

  7. One more quick point: Just as physics and biology address the questions of the origins of the universe and of life, note that creation myths have always tackled these subjects too, which is where the science-religion interaction focusses. Chemistry has had no grand revolutionary theories, but then neither do religions or myths make many claims about the composition or behaviour of matter. In fact, to the best of my knowledge (which I admit is severely limited here), ideas like that everything is made of four elements (earth, water, fire and air) or that everything is made of atoms stirred up nothing like as much controversy and anxiety as did questions about where the world came from as a whole, and where we came from.

    In fact, when you consider what some of the atomists said you can start to see why chemistry maybe never had so many poor hypotheses to overturn:

    “The world is made of two parts, the full (pleres, stereon) and the empty, the vacuum (cenon, manon). The fullness is divided into small particles called atoms (atomon, that cannot be cut, indivisible). The atoms are infinite in number, eternal, absolutely simple; they are all alike in quality but differ in shape, order, and position. Every substance, every single object, is made up of those atoms, the possible combinations of which are infinite in an infinity of ways. The objects exist as long as the atoms constituting them remain together; they cease to exist when their atoms move away from one another. The endless changes of reality are due to the continual aggregation and disaggregation of atoms.”

    – Democritus, 5th century BC

  8. I agree with you Deborah, that there’s some wiggle room w.r.t. how stories are framed. And there is wiggle room there, for sure, maybe more than that and maybe you could make chemistry a new lease of life in the public’s imagination by linking it to life’s origins. But I think it’s going to be hard. You have to overcome the fact that people more naturally connect to things like frogs and horses, and even bacteria and primordial slime than they do to their building blocks, like amino acids and nucleotides. It might be that children aren’t prepared from early on to think in abstract enough ways to appreciate the relevance of molecules when they’re adults. But that’s just speculation on my part.

  9. And as I said before, it doesn’t help that chemistry is represented as a subject where you have to “remember” molecules and reactions. No child thinks of frogs and horses as something to “remember”. They’re just frogs and horses.

  10. Deborah Blum says:

    I agree with all the points you make here, Luke. I have to say that I do find it fascinating and wonderful that we (or more precisely, Democritus and his colleagues) were talking about the secret life of atoms back in the 5th century. But you’re right that communicating chemistry poses extra challenges compared to say animal behavior or wildlife biology. It’s that extra step, not just that we’re relating to the frog, as in your example, but the frog as a chemical being. Worth it, of course! You might find this recent piece in Nature Chemistry (which cites The Poisoner’s Handbook) interesting in this regard:

  11. Pingback: Nature Chem on communicating chemistry | Luke Scientiæ

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  14. Ralph Froehlich says:

    Your comment “And the Romans had begun smelting iron ore on a major scale, making the pipes that fed their waterworks.” is contradicted by the attached photo showing that Romans used lead for their water pipes. Consider substituting “lead” for “iron” in the sentence to be correct.

    The Romans also used lead for sweetening wine, sealing roofs, cosmetics, and food and beverage containers. No wonder that skeletal evidence shows elevated concentrations of lead during Roman times.

  15. Deborah Blum says:

    Agreed. The Romans seem to be a kind of poster child for the problems of a lead-soaked life. Thanks for the heads up – I’ll make a note in the post as well.

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