If you’re at a party, and a non-chemist asks what your work involves, what do you say? Let’s assume that you get beyond the “I’m a research chemist” stage, and your friend actually wants to hear some details. How do you explain your project in terms that joe public will understand?
I ask this because, having just completed two years as a News & Views editor for Nature, I’ve found that seemingly simple chemical concepts can be misunderstood by scientists from other disciplines. Here’s an example: catalysts. All that most people understand about catalysts is that they speed up reactions. They don’t know – or they have forgotten – that a defining characteristic of catalysts is that they’re used in small quantities.
This lack of insight seems remarkable, especially in biologists, who clearly know a lot about enzymes. But I know from experience that my biologist colleagues don’t know what is meant by ‘a catalytic quantity’ of material. Much less do they understand why a catalytic reaction is preferable to a stoichiometric one (and let’s not get started on the word ‘stoichiometric’). You may think that they’re being remarkably obtuse – but try asking a friend from another discipline about catalysts, and you’ll be surprised at what they don’t know.
Does any of this matter? Well, if we want chemistry to have the same respect and recognition as biology, physics and the geosciences (with their headline-grabbing genomes, exoplanets and predictions of climate change), then yes it does. When was the last time a breakthrough in chemistry made it to the front page of a national newspaper?
Frankly, it’s always going to be an uphill battle. We’re never going to see the headline “Catalyst distinguishes between enantiotopic protons” on the front page of the New York Times. In fact, we shouldn’t necessarily expect people to remember everything about chemistry that they were taught at high school – with catalysts being a prime example of this. But we shouldn’t give up trying to explain our work. I know from experience that complex concepts, such as enantiotopicity, can be explained to non-chemists in terms they understand. It just takes a little more effort than you might expect.
Andy Mitchinson (Associate Editor, Nature)