Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chemistry vs. Physics &. Biology

Of the three physical sciences listed above, physics and biology seem to have a lot in common, with chemistry being the odd-man out.
  • Physics and biology both have "dissident" scientists who disagree with some of the key fundamentals in the science. You don't have to spend too much time in physics forums to run across people who think that all of quantum mechanics and/or relativity is wrong, and that they have a better explanation that doesn't require ideas that clash with our everyday experiences. Biologists have to deal with all the people, including scientists, who deny evolution. Fortunately, chemistry seems to be immune to "dissident" thought. I can't think of a single example where a fundamental chemical idea is challenged.
  • Physics and biology have both done a better job of selling themselves to the general public than chemistry has. Physicists are able to get funding for particle accelerators that may not ever be able to produce results applicable to the "real world", and yet many in the general public are well aware of the search for the Higgs Boson. Astrophysicists are similarly able to get funding for ever larger telescopes and space telescopes. As long as they produce the occasional breathtaking picture of nebula and galaxies, the general public is happy. As for biologists, they were able to get billions for sequencing the human genome, although they at least held out the promise of "personalized medicine" and the discovery of the gene that causes disease X, Y and Z (with the soon to follow cure for these diseases). Has there ever been a large scale chemistry project, let alone one that captured the public's imagination? I can't think of any.
  • Chemistry seems to more feared by the public than physics or biology is. I'll admit that this is a personal perception that might be heavily tainted by my experiences, but it seems to me that there is more chemophobia than there is fear of anything that physicists or biologist work with. Certainly there is fear of radiation and certain microbiological organisms, but these fears are limited to rather thin facets of life - nuclear power plants & weapons for physics, and food safety & infections/disease for biologists, whereas chemophobia can exist with practically everything that people touch in their lives. If a physicist is working with optics, that's o.k. If a biologist is working with fish, that's o.k. [*] If a chemist is working at all, it's with chemicals and that's bad no matter what.
While I am glad that we don't have to deal with the crackpots, it sure would be nice to have a few large-scale projects that the public is all to happy to pay for, one that will improve their perception of chemistry and reduce the amount of chemophobia in the world today.

[*]as long as they are not genetically modified fish. (I realize this is a small concern in the US and a bigger concern in Europe.)


Anonymous said...

Wow. This is an amazingly narrow view of chemistry. How is quantum mechanics and its open questions not absolutely integral to the entire field? And non-equilibrium dynamics is all worked out, right?

There's more to chemistry than synthesis and polymers.

John said...

Actually, I would say you have an amazingly narrow reading of the post. I covered three diverse subjects and you chose to (mis)read one of them, and respond to just that.

juanrga said...

Interesting post. I believe that I have answers to your three main questions:

1) The lack of dissidents is a consequence of the repetitive claim that chemistry was finished and that all their fundamental laws are already known. This 'mantra' is, of course, wrong but is repeated by physicists and some quantum chemists.

Quantum mechanics and relativity are well-known to be incomplete and open to new research. Many crackpots, unaware of the scientific method, believe that an incomplete theory is wrong and seek for a new theory giving them glory and fame. Moreover, many of them read or misread Einstein biographies and believe that Einstein revolutionized physics without even being a scientist (which is again false).

2) This is partially explained by point 1) most people believes that "chemistry is already finished" and because leading advances in chemistry are being sold to public as physics or chemistry. See

for examples. I know the case of certain Nobel winner for chemistry, whose work is relabeled as physics in many popular presentations. I know even a history article that says that he won a Nobel prize in physics by his work (when he won the the Chemistry Nobel for his work).

3) Chemistry has been often presented as synonym for "chemical industry" and mistakes of this latter are attributed to the science without any logic.

John said...


You have some good ideas, particularly the last one (chemistry = chemical industry) that I had not thought of before.


juanrga said...

Thank you. It was for me a delight to read your blog article.

Above, in my point 2), I did a mistake. I did mean that «leading advances in chemistry are being sold to public as physics or BIOLOGY». Check the Nature article for specific examples.

Regarding the public image of chemistry. I recommend you a look to this book

Anonymous said...

Point is we do not eat Higg's Bosons and physics is mostly pure research to advance knowledge. Biology's goal is to understand life and successes are publicized in a positive context: anti-aging, anti-cancer, amazing how we work, etc. Physics talks about pop stuff, like black holes, gravity and stuff that is both tantalizing (teleportation) and intriguing (do neutrinos travel faster than light.)
Good old chemistry suffers from not having 100 per cent yields so all those nasty things, (thalidomide and pollutants and side effects and toxic paint and melamine in baby formula, plus ignorant press, on the one hand, lead to a negative view. Then, on the other hand, many people say to me, when they find out I am a chemistry. "Oh, chemistry, my worst subject!"
But bad raps in Physics: how about the atomic bomb?, radiation, and nuclear power. Biology: all the stupid fuss over "Intelligent design", and responses to childrens' vacinations.
People still are scared of aspartame.
However when I look at major errors. That is errors of the type that have lead to a paradigm shift in knowledge, physics has the most errors.
I actually look at Nature in terms of temperature. We live on this really cold planet with liquid water and mostly frozen metals, and at energies where chemical bonds can form. Go colder, it is uninteresting for life, go hotter, and we vaporize. Physics is interested in energies which could never support life. So chemistry is the fall guy.

Anonymous said...

This is a very narrow view of chemistry.
There are so many topics in chemistry other than grinding test tubes and mixing "chemicals" in the lab.
There is quantum chemistry , non-equilibrium thermodynamics , reaction kinetics and solid state chemistry which are interdisciplinary with physics.
And we have polymers , biochemistry(it's in your blood) too.
We have nanotechnology and material science which are heavily dependent on principles of chemistry.
Chemistry is not subject to be feared/hated but one to be respected.
It might not have fancy words like black holes, time and space like physicists pull up.(These are very important.Not attacking physics here.)
It might not make far fetched promises like anti-aging drug , skin therapy drugs, like biology does.(which is in fact heavily dependent on chemistry for synthesis of these drugs)(and we do need biology too.Not attacking biology either).
But don't you say chemistry is scary or unimportant cause it might not be some public star to dance for you all but it sure as pays the bills for itself and for you.
Much of physics owes itself to chemists and vice versa.Same can be said of biology.
But stop treating sciences like pop stars and start treating them like what they are-ways to uncover the truth and reality of the world/universe.
Science is not an entertainment park to make you feel good and warm.
It's about the truth and being dependable.
That said all the three branches are equally important and useful.
And I'm tired of amateurs watching sci-fi all the time and thinking they know stuff about science.
You sure haven't seen science until you get on the receiving end of a differential equation or in front of an exploding test tube.
So don't comment random nonsense without proper knowledge.