“Reengineering Chemistry” was the eye-catching title of George Whitesides’s talk on the opening day of the ACS National Meeting in Boston last August. With years of experience leading a multidisciplinary research group and multiple spin-offs in areas from diagnostics to robotics, the Harvard chemistry professor succinctly identified a spectrum of societal issues for chemists to confront. Key to advancing is distilling complexity into simplicity in defining problems, and using interdisciplinarity to solve them. He mothballs as self-defeating the distinction between basic and applied research, instead emphasizing that there’s opportunity for basic discovery in addressing social problems with technological advances. Whitesides skillfully compiles a “What’s Next” classification of societal problems for chemistry to address, presented here, with his permission:
1) What is the molecular basis of life, and how did life originate?
2) How does the brain think?
3) How do dissipative systems work? Oceans and atmosphere, metabolism, flames
4) Water, and its unique role in life and society
5) Rational drug design
6) Information: the cell, public health, megacities, global monitoring
7) Healthcare, and cost reduction: “End-of-life” or healthy life?
8) The microbiome, nutrition, and other hidden variables in health
9) Climate instability, CO2, the sun, and human activity
10) Energy generation, use, storage, and conservation
11) Catalysis, especially heterogeneous and biological catalyses
12) Computation and simulation of real, large-scale systems
13) Impossible materials
14) The chemistry of the planets: Are we alone, or is life everywhere?
15) Augmenting humans
16) Analytical techniques that open new areas of science
17) Conflict and national security
18) Distributing the benefits of technology across societies: frugal technology
19) Humans and machines: robotics
21) Controlling the global population
22) Combining human thinking and computer “thinking”
23) All the rest: jobs, globalization, international competition, and Big Data
The list ends with # 24 – Combinations with adjacent fields. This brings to mind biologist Stuart Kauffman’s ‘The Adjacent Possible’ and author Steven Johnson’s How We Got To Now, stimulating writing about nonlinear pathways to solutions.
You can enjoy George Whiteside’s thoughts on reinventing chemistry in his article in the March 9, 2015 edition of Angewandte Chemie