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.
“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.