Monday, August 22, 2005


"Chemistry", writes Prof. P. Balaram (Current Science, July 2, 2003 issue), is the "Cinderella of the Sciences, in search of her fairy godmother".
I couldn't agree more. Two articles, the one by Balaram, and the other by Prof. Gautam Desiraju at the University of Hyderabad, lament Chemistry in India, and help me pen some of my own perspectives on to paper. Although this post is one I relish in making as a chemist, it's not biased and reflects what I think is a true state of affairs for chemistry, especially in India.

For some reason, everyone agrees that Chemistry is important. If they are pointed out that almost everything that they see around themselves in the modern world stems from chemical research, they cannot say no. Yet nobody seems to want to study chemistry or be a chemist. The practical and industrial virtues of chemistry are obvious, they are all around us, and I don't want to probe in detail into them, but it's the nature of chemistry as a science in itself that I want to talk about.
Physics has its wonders, the deep mysteries of particles and the cosmos, and biology asks questions about life itself. Both hold untramelled allure for the layman. Chemistry, on the other hand, seems to ask no "big" questions, it seems to not particularly wander into "cutting edge" areas, and it's practioners don't seem to have the aura that Albert Einstein or Charles Darwin seem to possess. Somehow, physicists are revered for their otherworldly existence, biologists for their profound excursions into life, and chemists seem to be regarded with a mundane eye because of their earthy existence. Yet, it may be safely said that none of these other two sciences would have gone far, if it had not been for chemistry. Consider the two biggest technological revolutions of the last century; the making of the atomic bomb, and genetic engineering. The first one is immediately tossed into the realm of physics, the other one into biology. Less appreciated perhaps, is the fact, that none of these ventures would have been possible without chemistry. In the first one, the theory of the bomb had been more or less worked out in 1942; what remained was the almost insurmountable looking problem of separating the two isotopes of Uranium. This problem entailed the setting up of what at that time was the biggest industrial complex in the world under one roof. As for genetic engineering, absolutely none of the marvels of modern biotechnology would have been possible without an understanding of chemical bonds and transformations, and how those transformations help in the creation of novel biological entities in the laboratory. Other technological innovations like semiconductors and lasers also have a firm and essential grounding in chemistry.

So why the lukewarm response to chemistry? The way I see it, the biggest virtue of chemistry, which is usually seen as a problem or as a boring fact, is that it is a devious mixture of the qualitative and quantitative. In chemistry, there are many guiding principles, which are too complicated for a 'first principles' approach based on physics and mathematics. This is a fact that in my opinion, not only marks chemistry different from other sciences, but also needs patience to appreciate and understand. Just like economics, I would like to call chemistry an 'adult' subject. This does not imply anything snide, nor does it imply that all chemists are responsible adults (I am a glaring counterexample...) But it does imply that appreciation of chemistry comes a little later and needs patience, because of the tricky combination of facts and formulas that entails the accurate understanding of chemical systems. It is probably quite easy to appreciate the logic and rigor in physics and mathematics. As for biology, the whole subject seems so vast at the beginning, and so manifest in that what we call 'life', that no attempts are made to apply logic to it, and we just (rightly) stare in awe at it's complexity. But chemistry provides the link between the rigor of physics and the global feel of biology. Without trying to sound biased, let me say that at it's core, all of biology is chemistry. All biological macrmolecules and systems, no matter how complex, are subject to the same laws of chemistry, albeit greatly refined, that compounds in test-tubes are subject to. In fact, this realisation was crucial in overthrowing the tenet of 'vitalism' in the nineteenth century. At this point, the physicists may quip in and say that at it's core, all of biology is atoms, and therefore physics. However, chemistry definitely provides a much more direct and intuitive link to biology. Understand Bohr's theory of the atom provides a much small intuitive leap in understanding DNA, than does an understanding of the chemical bond. It's simply a question of heirarachy. The physics of atoms may provide the foundation for understanding biological molecules, but it's too far too low in the heirarchy to be of any direct use in appreciating the behaviour of DNA or proteins. And to think of it again, it's not surprising. Chemistry is really about molecules and the entities that provide the action in biology are molecules. So an understanding of chemistry is not surprisingly, a must, for appreciating the structure of biological molecules, and the forces that hold them together. And that is one of the differences between chemistry and physics. In physics, especially theoretical physics, understanding an equation can go a long way in understanding the physical principle involved. In chemistry, it is much less so, and equations are of no great help to a chemist who actually wants to get a feel for a chemical system. In fact, the equations of quantum theory are too complicated for any but the simplest chemical systems, and so intuition is an essential prerequisite in understanding 'real' systems.

The advent of cutting edge techniques and instrumentation in medicine owes much to chemistry as a training ground for methods. Almost every analysis that is done by pathalogists in the lab is based on a chemical reaction, and its subsequent quantitation in the form of an observable such as fluoroscence, colour changes, or changes in conductance. The analysis of drugs in body fluids, a technique that is so important in drug discovery and medical diagnosis that it is taken for granted, was developed by organic chemists working together with analytical chemists. Every drug on the market today made it there because its concentrations could be measured in patients; this deceptively simple analysis provides a wealth of data on the lifetime of the drug in the blood, its concentration in certain organs and passage of transport, and its metabolites which are responsible for side effects.
Probably the most significant advance in non-invasive medical techniques has been MRI, whose progenitors received the Nobel Prize two years ago. Less known to the layman is the fact that MRI is based on the principles of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, a ubiquitous and terribly important tool in chemistry. Actually the reason they took the 'Nuclear' out of MRI was because of the general public's paranoia for anything nuclear; in this case, the word only implies that one is observing the magnetic properties, most commonly of the nucleus of a simple hydrogen atom. Indeed, it's the chemist who has always made the largest use of NMR, and chemistry has been the supreme training ground for the technique. Although it was developed initially by physicists, it were the chemists who elevated the status of NMR to such a comprehensive level, that a lifetime will be needed now to study the technique in all its ramifications. Three Nobels have been awarded to individuals who pioneered NMR. Out of them, one was given to physicists; the other two latest ones were given to chemists, one for methods development, and a very recent one for the application of the technique to determining the structure of biomolecules. NMR also provides a good example of the kind of comprehensive knowledge that is needed to master it. At it's core, its theory and techniques are highly mathematical. At the other end, it can be applied to finding out all sorts of things about biological molecules with a bare minimum of theoretical knowledge and an important knowledge of chemistry and an intuitive feel for what it is that one wants to find out from the experiment.

The mixed qualititative and quantitative nature of chemistry leaves many uncertain about it's utility. Actually, it's precisely this slippery and alluring combination of attributes that makes the subject beautiful and full of appeal for people like me. The fact is, to understand chemistry, one has to combine a minimum mathematical understanding with an intuitive feel for the behaviour of atoms and molecules, that is based on the accumulation of facts. The insight offered into a problem with a combination of differential equations solving, experimental data acquiring, and recounting obscure facts from inorganic chemistry textbooks, is truly satisfying. In chemistry, chemical intuition plays as important a role as the ability to do statistical analysis. This 'feel' for the subject cannot be obtained without having factual knowledge of atoms and molecules. However, to call this 'mugging up' or 'memorization' is an insult. After all, even in mathematics, one has to accumulate facts which would help him tackle more advanced analysis. Unfortunately, many students at the college level cast chemistry into the same pot as biology, and resign themselves to accepting that chemistry is simply memorizing facts. Organic chemistry is probably the perfect example of the nature of chemistry. At first sight, every student thinks that organic chemistry is simply the memorization of reactions and reagents and structures. However, only when one has studied it for two semesters or so, does the underlying logical behind the subject become clear. In it's culmination, organic chemistry is like architecture and mathematics combined together, conforming to the same kind of chemical logic that numbers conform to in mathematics, and making possible the construction of exquisite structures with the finesse of an architect. In chemistry, appreciation of 'logic' comes much later. There needs to be a certain maturity, at least with respect to patience, needed to understand the logic of chemistry. At the same time, as Desiraju says, 'chemists don't need to be crack mathematicians, nor do they need to completely forgo it'. There has to be a fine balance, which seems to be missing.

The main culprit in all of this is the college chemistry and biology syllabus in India, that confounded conglomeration of outdated facts, that gives students the wrong ideas about almost every subject. In fact, today, even biology is NOT about the "mere accumulation of facts". The age of Linneaus is long since gone. Biology has acquired rigor that would have been wholly unanticipated fifty years ago. It has become much like chemistry now, with a tricky but fascinating mixture of facts, formulas, and mathematical analyses. It is sheer damnation that the inane syllabus in our colleges prebiases students' minds so much, that by 11th std. they have convinced themselves of the totally ridiculous and misleading fact that "those who are good at memorizing facts opt for biology, and those who are good at logical thinking opt for maths". Nothing could be further from the truth these days, when any scientific problem at the frontier of any scientific discipline (including medicine and engineering) always needs precise logical thinking. If not anything else, one fact should convince these naive and misguided minds; in the past fifty years, the most path breaking and important discoveries in biology have been made by non-biologists. Conversely, biologists have made their field the most lucrative testing ground for researchers from every other plausible discipline; from mathematics and computer science, to chemistry and mechanical engineering. Even among these, chemistry has been the oldest and most steadfast companion of biology since time immemorial. The link was provided by Friedrich Wohler in 1828, who first synthesized urea in the laboratory without the need for a living system to do it.

Who is to blame? Desiraju says, quite rightly, that educational instituions in India are certainly to blame, whose guardians offer the most unpalatable fare to students. On the other hand, I believe that blaming any one agent in our dilapidated academic gerontocracy is simply to play passing the ball. To completely blame teachers for not teaching chemistry well is a futile, if justified, exercise. After all, how many professors of, say, mechanical engineering, teach mechanical engineering truly well, with passion? Still, the number of bright students opting for mechanical engineering every year is far more than those opting for chemistry. I maintain that the number of passionate and involved teachers of chemistry in the country is no less that that for any other discipline. And therein surfaces the core problem once again; the paucity of good science education in our country and the lack of good students in science. But that's a subject about which I have much (probably too much!) to say. So I will save that for the next post.

As for me, I was always drawn to the allure of chemistry. If not anything else, the bubbles, colours, explosions, gurgles and sploshes of chemistry can always draw the attention of any child worth the salt of his curiosity. Chemistry always has been one of my favourite subjects. In school, I had a private lab in a spare bathroom. There, I dyed handkerchiefs, made soap, dissolved safety pins, and pried open bathroom tiles with HCl. It was always a magical retreat for me. In college, I was smitten by the rigor of physics. Even today, the kick I get from understanding a basic physics concept is unique. But I love chemistry, I love the way it allows me to indulge my multiple interests and to connect diverse concepts, and I hope that some day it can enable me to transmit the joy of discovery and thought to someone else...

P.S. Sickness and a presentation conspired to keep me away from blogging...on the other hand, the well-timed presentation to impress my advisor helped for once ;) and I am finally booking my ticket for India for December!


Anonymous Sid Rege said...

Great article Ashutosh. Unfortunately I belonged to that community of misguided people who felt that chemistry was a rather 'impure' science as against physics or mathematics, which were more pure. I guess by that I mean more analytical. I suppose it goes back to 11th and 12th standard IIT preparation days, when studing maths and physics meant sitting with a pencil and paper working out problems, while chemistry meant reading that massive tome 'O.P Agarwal (I forget the title) and, yes I shudder to say, mugg up facts. But reading your article put those unfortunate hours into better perspective.

2:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"physical feeling" is quite useful in mathematics as well, apparently. As Poincare said "One invents with intuition and proves with logic"

8:43 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Rege: O P Agarwal's giant tome is still with me here in the US! I always go back to it for basic stuff which is interesting. A lot of so-called 'advanced' problems frequently need knowledge of basic concepts. I am sure the JEE syllabus does a great job of instilling them in students.

Anon: That's true. But in physics and chem, this feeling is frequently based on parameters obtained from experiments.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many great scientists have given the accounts of how they thought and it seems like a lot of the conscious deliberation about a problem is "rigorous", in the sense that one looks at experimental data or seemingly disjoint set of ideas in mathematics and then all things seem to fit into some pattern. And then people have had their own understanding of what is true and what is beautiful and these are not always the same things. Whenever I thought about a scientific (/mathematical/engineering) concept, the meaning has always come after a digestion of lots of seemingly unrelated information, facts or idea or formulae. A beautiful definition of thought is due to Einstein (my transcription): "When senses form a picture of the world aroud us, it is not thought. When these pictures are organized in some order, it is still not thought. When all these disparate pictures are woven together by a concept, then it becomes a thought. It is this involvement of concept that separates thought from all that goes before. " A simple example: tangent of an angle is ratio of the two non-hypotenuse sides of the right angled triangle, but the concept is simply that the ratio is invariant with respect to the length of the sides, that makes it a sort of "canonical" measure, and hence a concept. So I would probably argue that most scientific and mathematical thought involves something of both the qualitative and the quantitative.
What you say about science education in India is pretty true, though I studied medicine there, but it is even more so in that discipline than in others.
On another note: your blog has excellent posts on history and philosophy of science, some of my own interests, thought they are taking a slight backseat now that I am trying to do "rigorous" science.
We have never met, so it would perhaps be futile to leave a name.

6:45 PM  

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