CHYMISTES: THE DISTILLERS OF WATERS
On the Occasion of the Dedication of
The Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory,
April 25, 1997
Kenneth S. Suslick
Last spring, Steve Sligar asked me to present an after-dinner speech to the visiting alumni, as part of the dedication ceremonies for our new Chemical & Life Sciences Laboratory. In one of those moments of a sense of duty (that we all have and mostly come to regret later!), I agreed.
It was made clear to me that this was not to be a standard research presentation. Rather, I was to provide an overview for an audience with diverse background (remember there were a lot of biologists and University administrators in the audience, too). I took this as a challenge, in some ways much like my course Chem 115, "The Chemistry of Everyday Phenomena." The talk went well enough that Steve requested an encore in the form of an article for the SCS Newsletter.
This presentation was a fancy slide show---well, actually there weren't any slides---it came straight off my laptop and onto the screen via an SVGA LCD projector, complete with full color, animation, and dissolves. Very high tech, and to my amazement, it actually all worked. I can't really reproduce it all on paper, but I can best reprise the talk primarily with its images. So, I've edited down the slides and provided brief commentary as needed.
I made the theme of the talk four simple questions, posed in the figure above.
To answer the first of my four questions (What are we?), the first thing I did was to go online and look up "chemist" in the Oxford English Dictionary (http://www.uiuc.edu/cgi-bin/oed ).
This immediately gave me my title, which is the first written reference to "chemist" in English. Back then, "simples" were the miracle drugs of the time (i.e., vegetable or herbal remedies distilled from alcohol extracts), and "waters" were any liquid, especially the intoxicating sort! Bulleyn, by the way, was a cousin to Anne Bulleyn, one of the Queens of England during Henry VIII's reign; he also wrote the 1564 best seller, Dialog Against the Pestilence: A Cordial Ointement against the Pestilence, which provided recipes for liqueurs.
From Bacon's quotation, it is clear that much of what we do hasn't truly changed over the past 400 years. My real favorite, however, is from Alexander Pope, who clearly was referring to our non-industrial brethren!
Ted Brown has had for many years one of the best selling general chemistry textbooks: "Chemistry: The Central Science". The truth of this sobriquet is self-evident and even truer now than with Ted's first edition of 25 years ago. All physical sciences and technologies are fundamentally rooted in chemistry. It is no surprise therefore that Ted should have been the first Director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, nor that Jiri Jonas, also a chemist, should be the second.
Chemistry is central not only with respect to providing a foundation for other sciences and technologies, but also in its place in what I refer to as the "Horn of Knowledge." In many ways, this slide expresses a very real tragedy of human existence: the frustration of never being able to know all of everything. There are really two parts to this dilemma, however: the problem of information overload and the problem of variables versus determinables. Fundamentally, these two problems represent kinetic versus thermodynamic control!
Larry Smarr, Director of the NCSA (née National Center for Supercomputing Applications, now the National Computational Science Alliance), has referred to the kinetics part of this problem as trying to drink from a fire hydrant. I fear, however, that it is the second problem, the thermodynamics, which really represents the inherent complexity of different fields, is even more limiting. Chemistry is central in this scheme of things, as well. The number of variables with which chemists must cope is not quite at the level of mind-numbing messiness, but it is also well above the pristine simplicity that many hope to strive for. Well, after all, chemistry is just the physics of interesting systems!
George Hammond, when at Caltech, tried to renormalize chemistry and the undergraduate curriculum around 1970. This had significant influence in the laboratory curriculum here as well. As an undergrad, I enrolled in Hammond's course on "Chemical Education," which may well have been the only "Education Course" ever taught at Caltech! Rather than the parochial divisionalization of chemistry based on historical precedent, Hammond saw the underlying conceptual links among the subdisciplines. George has no responsibility for the bracketed rap lyrics, for which I alone take the blame.
I am particularly proud of this figure, which does what every freshman thought we could do: here is all of chemistry on a single slide. Fundamentally, chemistry is the interaction of energy and matter. the parameters that control that interaction are the time of the interaction, the amount of energy in the interaction, and the pressure or density at which the interaction occurs. Together these describe a three-dimensional space in which different kinds of chemistry can be placed. The figure shows the heavily populated island of thermal chemistry at medium pressure, time, and energy. Chemistry under geological conditions, at high pressures and long-time scales, is shown as the spike on the far right. The island of sonochemistry is in the back corner, near shock and photochemistry. All of these are related because they are all forms of interacting energy and matter. Each, however, has its own specific characteristics because each occupies a different region of this three-dimensional space.
Having defined what chemists are and what chemistry is, the talk then moved on to "Where have we been."
The traditional divisions of chemistry predate this century. While they are certainly present even in contemporary research, their biggest role lies in the subdivision of undergraduate teaching. Universities in the U.S. have never been quite as divided as the European schools, where it is not uncommon, even today, to find completely separate departments with completely separate faculty and facilities, and even with nearly completely separate undergraduate curricula.
By the middle of this century, the blurring of fields was well underway. Separate departments of Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry were being established everywhere, including UIUC, and newer research areas that spanned the traditional divisions became some of the most active areas of research.
At this point in time, we can't even represent the molecular sciences in two dimensions, in spite of this cartoon. This is only a projection of a multi-dimensional space where all of the subdisciplines overlap with each other. Even Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry, which once were nearly antipodal, have substantial common interests and methodologies. The politics of internal resources, of course, is a whole other issue!
I have another way of portraying the various fields of science: a plot of molecular weight against some measure of living/non-living. One aspect of this leaps out at me, and that is what I've called the "Meso-Molecular Gap". Between small molecules and macromolecules, there lies a region of relatively unexplored chemistry that deals with things that mass between roughly 1000 and 10,000 amu. Supramolecular chemistry falls in this space, but so does much synthetic peptide work and also inorganic clusters and nanophase materials. Only recently have tools been developed for both synthesis and characterization of molecules in this region. Needless to say, this gap is being rapidly closed and quite actively so at the University of Illinois.
There is a wonderful discussion of the early days of chemistry at the University of Illinois in a brochure prepared for our Centennial in 1967. Articles by Parr and Fuson were included (and I'll try to put them on the Web sometime). I don't know what $5000 in 1868 would be worth in current dollars, but I'll wager it isn't what we now spend on Xeroxing in a year! It is impressive that by 1916, the year that Roger Adams arrived as an Assistant Professor, we had 62 faculty in all areas of chemical sciences (there are 78 now) and occupied what was at the time the largest university chemistry laboratory in the world.
As we dedicate the newest chemical laboratory, it seemed appropriate to look back at the labs that started it all. Chemistry started out in the basement of University Hall, the founding building of the University. Appropriately enough, the site of University Hall is now occupied by the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. A separate Department of Applied Chemistry was added and labs opened in the Harker Hall, which proved to be too small, too quickly. Besides that, after the lightning strike started the fire that burned through the beams that supported the water tank that smashed through four floors, that finished Harker as a laboratory! It has been recently "renovated" as the home of the University Foundation; you sure can't tell it was ever a dirty old lab. Noyes, of course, has changed very little (either on the outside or on the inside). If you look closely at the photo, however, you may note that the new wing of Noyes (completed 1916) is missing from this postcard (which is dated Feb. 7, 1907). The postcard is from a Freshman to his parents; on the front of the card, he wrote "Oh yes! I got through chemistry!"; it's good to see that some challenges never change.
This is my own list of the most important chemical discoveries to come out of the UIUC this century. If I've left out your favorite, please accept my apologies. Better yet, send me your suggestions and I'll add them. You'll notice that I stopped the countdown at t-minus 20 years. It isn't that we haven't made progress in that time, it's just that I'd prefer to keep what few friends I have!
The past is prologue." Enough of where we've been, now where are we?
The School of Chemical Sciences is 3% of the University in numbers, but probably a whole lot more in prestige (and funding, and clout).
At the risk of annoying my colleagues, I've attempted to map the research interests of the SCS faculty in the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory onto my chemical plane of size versus livingness. This isn't completely successful, partly do to my own ignorance and partly because many faculty have multiple interests in very different parts of this plane. Regardless, I think that it is pretty neat the way that the space is nearly filled.
Where do we go from here?
I offer Trotsky's motto.
At the turn of the century, only macroscopic properties of chemical and materials could be measured. By mid-century, chemists could probe things at the molecular and atomic level, but the middle ground remained inaccessible. I believe that the developments of the next half-century will be primarily in the "mesoscopic" regime: that is, the control of individual atoms and molecules on scale of the macroscopic. The kind of control over molecular and material properties that will develop from this would seem like magic to our predecessors (and maybe even to us!).
The patron saint of this new domain was Richard Feynman; his prescience (nice word that) in 1959 envisioning the nanoscale control of materials and machines remains impressive. The complete text can be found at a Xerox Corp. webpage. There is a big difference, however, in the ways that chemists view this regime compared to physicists or engineers. We build from the bottom up, whereas they do it from the top down. It is the difference between bronze casting and marble carving; few artists can do both well, but both methods can produce masterpieces.
Here we are now. Please come and visit our new labs when you have the chance. We are proud of them and love to show them off!
To answer the last question of my talk, I ended with a Nasrudin story. The Mulla Nasrudin is the wise-fool of Sufiism and there are hundreds of stories about him that are used to teach the important lessons of life (Idries Shah has collected some of the best). This particular one, I used for the opening of my own Ph.D. thesis.
Walking one evening along a deserted road, Mulla Nasrudin saw in the distance a troop of horsemen coming towards him. His imagination started to work; he saw himself captured, beaten, and sold as a slave or impressed into the army. Nasrudin bolted, and dove into a ditch at the side of the road where he lay on his stomach, quivering with his hands covering. Puzzled at his strange behavior, the men ‚ friends of Nasrudin, after all ‚ stopped and asked, "What are you doing down there? Can we help?" "Just because you can ask a question, does not mean that there is a straightforward answer," said Nasrudin, who now realized what had happened. "It all depends on your point of view. If you must know, however: I am here because of you, and you are here because of me."