I’ve got the power

I must admit, I really enjoy riding the bus to work – it’s not just because of the unusual people you tend to meet on public transportation (though that’s half the fun), but because the rides are long enough for me to skim through various journals to see if there’s anything I want to read later on in the day. Normally there are a few things that catch my eye, and I’ll set them aside for a lunch break (or while I’m waiting for the bus at the end of the day). But my plan to quickly skim through this week’s Science failed completely – it’s jam-packed full of interesting articles, and I needed to set aside a few hours to read through them all.

It’s a special issue focused on ‘Sustainability and Energy,’ two topics that are obviously important these days – it starts out with a few ‘Profiles’ of major players in the field (I especially enjoyed reading the ones on Dan Nocera, Jay Keasling, and James Dumesic) and then there’s a number of ‘Perspectives’ (I’d recommend starting with the ones by Whitesides & Crabtree and Stephanopoulos).

Reading through this material made me feel like (somewhere along the way) I should have had a class or two that focused on the chemistry/biochemistry of energy research. Before I started working at Nature, I hadn’t really been exposed to this topic in much detail, despite taking (what felt like) dozens of classes in my undergraduate days. Those classes tended to focus on ‘pure’ chemistry/shy away from applications, and the graduate classes I took were fairly specialized/on completely different topics…

One of my undergraduate physical chemistry classes had both chemists and civil engineers in it, and I remember that the questions asked by the civil engineers (“Is this why cement dries on the outside first?”) generally annoyed the chemists – is this a clash of the two cultures (i.e., science vs. engineering), or were my experiences the exception and not the rule?

Do you think we are doing enough to make sure that future generations of chemists are prepared to tackle important problems in energy research? Sure – you could argue that applied chemistry is the domain of the chemical engineers and that chemists shouldn’t learn this sort of stuff at the undergraduate level. But shouldn’t we be doing more to expose undergraduate chemists to important topics involving applied chemical research (for example, by requiring chemistry majors to take a chemical engineering class or two)?


Joshua Finkelstein (Senior Editor, Nature)