“Nothing is impossible, not if you can imagine it. That’s what being a scientist is all about.” – Prof. H. Farnsworth, Futurama
C. P. Snow, in The Two Cultures, described a divide between the sciences and the humanities. Certainly, the growth in scientific knowledge over the centuries means many years of study are necessary to gain the expertise needed to work effectively in a scientific discipline. Scientists often lapse into jargon in communicating findings, making it difficult for people who are not experts in their field to understand the significance of their research. We need more bridges across that divide, to make it easier for everyone to appreciate the beauty and elegance in the world we share.
Chemistry has fared particularly poorly in the popular imagination, despite its importance in modern life. If I told you that chemicals are in the air you breath, the water you drink, and the food you eat, would you not find it worrisome? Yet, life is itself a complex system of chemical reactions, a tightly choreographed dance of atoms which eventually became aware of itself. The fact that there are chemicals in our everyday life should not be troubling; we are ourselves made of chemicals, after all. It has been said that we fear that which we do not understand, could it be that a better understanding of chemistry would help dispel the unease?
Perhaps it is not quite so simple. The modern environmental movement grew in part out of opposition to the excesses of the chemical industry. The growing recognition of negative externalities has resulted in increasingly stringent regulations on environmental pollutants. However, there is no inherent contradiction between ecology and economics. An efficient process which minimizes the amount of energy and materials used to deliver the same quantity of product can be both ecologically sound and economically viable. One may imagine a future in which sustainable industrial practices mean a higher standard of living for more people across the world, without damaging the planetary life support systems we all rely on.
We are not there yet with today’s technology, but we can imagine it. Thank you for reading.