Published: 03.01.11

Quest for recognition of chemistry as cultural achievement

A series of events organised by the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences in the International Year of Chemistry 2011 is intended to illustrate just how important chemistry is for our lives, stresses Antonio Togni, professor of organometallic chemistry at ETH Zurich, in an interview. After all, chemistry's achievements are all too often met with mistrust and even ignorance.

Peter Rüegg
Antonio Togni, professor of organometallic chemistry at ETH Zurich, is coordinating and managing the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences activities in the International Year of Chemistry (photo: Peter Rüegg / ETH Zurich)
Antonio Togni, professor of organometallic chemistry at ETH Zurich, is coordinating and managing the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences activities in the International Year of Chemistry (photo: Peter Rüegg / ETH Zurich)

ETH Life: 2011 is officially the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). What is the purpose of this special year?
Antonio Togni: The International Year of Chemistry is intended as an opportunity to showcase the importance of chemistry to the general public, dispel certain prejudices or preconceptions about the subject and avoid misunderstandings. Many people still think that chemistry is primarily bad and to blame for things like pollution. This stance basically results from a lack of understanding. We want to change this by providing information to enable the public to form a much more informed opinion.

And the Year of Chemistry should improve understanding and fill the information gaps?
We chemists hope we can help achieve this. Together with the Department of Materials Science and the University of Zurich’s chemistry institutes, the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences has planned a number of activities in June this year to bring people in. We’re organising a chemistry day on the Hönggerberg and discussion platforms, for example. And we’re writing a book of stories taken from chemistry.

Where did chemistry’s poor image come from? The chemical accidents in recent history?
They certainly didn’t help matters. But the aversion to chemistry goes much deeper. Understanding chemistry means understanding the molecular and atomic world. This requires a certain basic knowledge that, unlike in mechanics or electricity, is not available or at least is less intuitive. The hopes that the Year of Chemistry will dramatically improve this state of affairs don’t go that far, of course. But with the title of our event “Chemistry as a Cultural Achievement”, we want to demonstrate what chemistry does for people.

Why do you describe chemistry as a cultural achievement?
It has to do with the essence of chemistry as a science and many ancient human activities that are based on chemical processes. That’s one aspect that distinguishes chemistry from other sciences. I borrowed the expression from the philosopher Peter Janich – one of the first to consider chemistry from a philosophical perspective. In his philosophical analysis of the sciences, he draws a distinction between naturalism and culturalism. Naturalistic means everything comes from nature; scientific study mainly consists of “admiring, observing, describing, analysing”.

That’s classical biology. What makes chemistry different?
The chemist of today still thinks extremely naturalistically without realising that he is working culturalistically. Chemistry is culture; man intervenes in processes, changes something and creates something new. He’s been doing so for thousands of years without the enterprise being referred to as chemistry. Recovering metals, staining, refining – much of it is age-old, but it’s chemistry. Like many processes in the organism, too.

And today?
Today, chemistry means, to put it somewhat boldly, you can fill up a bottle with a new product at the end of a working day. By this I’d like to underline the central and crucial role of synthesis. This distinguishes chemistry from other sciences. It’s primarily the making, the creating, on top of measuring, analysing, understanding and calculating.

That has a lot to do with human creativity. Is chemistry an art?
Absolutely. There are a great number of aspects of chemistry that are considered to be very artistic. Take how you “make” a molecule for instance: it can be elegant and imaginative. A molecule can even be considered as a work of art. It is art and artificial.

Does that mean chemists are artists?
Chemists have the ability to create the object they are studying first. I’m making a molecule that has never existed before in the universe. That might sound a bit arrogant, but a chemist can take it as read that he’ll create something exclusive. Elements of design and conception based on theoretical aspects come into play here.

How can chemistry help overcome the major challenges mankind faces?
Chemistry can make a relevant contribution towards the energy problem. It’s really a pity to burn oil. It took nature millions of years to form long hydrocarbon chains out of CO2. You might need these as raw materials for new chemical products. Then there’s the problem of mobile energy sources, such as fuel cells and batteries. You want batteries that are as efficient yet light as possible; you want to be able to drive 500 kilometres on one battery charge. It’s not feasible yet, but it’s not impossible. The chemical principles behind batteries are nothing new, but a lot can still be done on a microscopic and molecular level to produce efficient batteries that you can charge 1000 or even 10,000 times.

What other areas of research are currently relevant for chemistry?
Nanotechnology is and will continue to be important. You can deliberately produce nanoparticles and constantly improve your understanding of what happens on the surface of these particles and how nanoparticles behave under particular conditions. Nanotechnology carries many opportunities but also risks. They are important, socially relevant problems. Not to mention medication and agrochemicals.

But for many people agrochemicals are the epitome of “bad chemistry”.
Agrochemicals are frowned upon by the public. People think that someone spreads poison on the field and then you eat the plants that grow there. However, nowadays two tablespoons of certain herbicides used in the cultivation of maize, for instance, are enough to treat an area the size of a football field and achieve the desired effect. The molecules are designed in such a way as to protect the maize plants because they don’t have a toxic effect upon them. What’s more, the product decomposes within three weeks and the decomposition products are less harmful for all plants. That’s an achievement of modern chemistry, but no one mentions it.

There are similar trends in medicine: more effective and tolerable medication administered in smaller doses…
Yes. Chemistry also combats antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Here, it needs innovative and selective substances. Chemistry is everywhere: all the refined synthetics with special non-stick coatings which nothing sticks to if you so desire; all the chemistry used in manufacturing electronics. Without chemistry you can’t build any more computers, monitors, kitchen appliances; nothing. Only a few people realise that. The Year of Chemistry can really help make the public more aware of such points.

What got you interested in chemistry?
While I was at secondary school, I developed a fascination for atoms and molecules. The notion that I can know what happens on a molecular and atomic level if I mix two different substances had an element of mysticism, just like the idea that I can’t see molecules or atoms but can get them to do what I want. That really got me hooked. It was almost culturalistic [he grins]. But I never had a lab in the cellar. My gateway to chemistry was in my head. Triggering fascination also has a lot to do with your teachers; I had a great chemistry teacher.

Why should school children study chemistry?
One reason in favour of chemistry for pupils interested in science is that it is the ideal symbiosis between experimentation and theory. Theoretical thinking and “cooking things up” in the lab go hand in hand every single day. We might well have come a long way from the purely empirical phase but we’re nowhere near the point where everything is done on the computer. That’ll never happen, either – for the simple reason that one of the goals of chemistry is still to find and produce useful products that society needs. You might use a computer to help with the planning, but the implementation takes place in a flask or in a reactor.

What requirements do you need to complete the degree at ETH Zurich?
A love of lab work, good powers of observation, a good memory, a certain level of creativity, and imagination. And you also have to be able to cope with frustration…

because filling up a bottle of the new product doesn’t work out every evening.
Exactly. Because coping with frustration also means understanding why a problem can’t be solved in this way. This requires a thorough analysis of what happened in the lab in order to find a solution. So the subject requires an analytical mind.

What role does ETH Zurich play in chemistry both within Switzerland and on the international stage?
A very important one! We’re the biggest educational institution for chemists in Switzerland. After completing a four-year doctorate, around 100 doctors of chemistry and pharmacy graduate from ETH Zurich each year. ETH Zurich can pride itself in its reputation for chemistry.

How big is it really? It seems to me that the golden age of chemistry at ETH Zurich was between 1900 and 1960.
Yes, that’s true to a certain extent. But current international comparisons with other universities show that we are right up there with the best of them. ETH Zurich is therefore still a “beacon” of basic research in chemistry, and worldwide I might add.

International Year of Chemistry

On 30 December 2008 the 39th UN General Assembly decided to name 2011 the “International Year of Chemistry”. UNESCO and the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) were charged with coordinating the activities. The focus areas will be the contributions chemistry makes to sustainable development and novel energy sources. Chemistry’s achievements will be highlighted and information provided as to the opportunities and risks it carries. The year will officially be opened on 15 February with a national celebration in Berne.