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Why Study Chemistry?

What does Chemistry mean to you?

Lab-coats and Bunsen burners?
For today's chemist there is so much more.

You might like to check out the latest Chemistry news from the science Journal nature at www.nature.com/chemistry/podcast  

Chemistry Profoundly affects the world we live in.

Chemistry is a very vibrant science. It deals with an atomic and molecular scale interpretation of the world around us. It is often called the Central Science because it bridges and infiltrates all branches of Science and Natural Philosophy. An understanding of molecular structure and activity is vital in a wide range of pursuits.

In designing new drugs to combat disease medicinal chemists use rational design techniques and computational chemistry. Molecular Biologists and Biological Chemists understanding cell and other processes in organisms need to know about the structure and activity of DNA, proteins and enzymes. This requires highly sophisticated Chemical Techniques called X-ray crystallography, Mass Spectrometry and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy.These methods enable the chemical and 3D structures to be determined.

Material and Polymer Scientists need to understand how the molecular chemical structure of a new material affects its physical and chemical properties and can use this to optimize materials for potential applications from insulating materials for NASA spacecraft, wing coatings for Stealth Aircraft and Smart Fabrics capable of changing colour under different conditions.

The tools of analytical chemistry underpin many of the endevours listed above, and also the understanding and management of the environment from atmospheric chemistry through soil and water science.

Chemistry is one of the enabling sciences, one of the fundamental sciences that are utilized in all areas of endeavour. But in addition, Chemistry is a broad discipline offering many exciting avenues and challenges. To illustrate the diverse nature of Chemistry and its impact on the world, one only has to glance at the recent Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry: www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/index.html

Some Recent Nobel Prizes in Chemistry

2007 - Ertl (Germany) for his studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces. His insights have provided the scientific basis of modern surface chemistry: his methodology is used in both academic research and the industrial development of chemical processes. The approach developed by Ertl is based not least on his studies of the Haber-Bosch process, in which nitrogen is extracted from the air for inclusion in artificial fertilizers. Ertl has also studied the oxidation of carbon monoxide on platinum, a reaction that takes place in the catalyst of cars to clean exhaust emissions.

2006 - Kornberg (USA) for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription. Transcription is necessary for all life. This makes the detailed description of the mechanism that Roger Kornberg provides exactly the kind of "most important chemical discovery" referred to by Alfred Nobel in his will.

2005 - Chauvin (France), Grubbs (USA) and Schrock (USA) for their development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis. In metathesis reactions, double bonds are broken and made between carbon atoms in ways that cause atom groups to change places. This happens with the assistance of special catalyst molecules.

2004 - Ciechanover (Israel), Hershko (Israel) and Rose (USA) for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation. They discovered one of the cell's most important cyclical processes, regulated protein degradation.

2003 - Agre & MacKinnon (USA) for their discoveries about how salts (ions) and water are transported out of and into the cells of the body. The discoveries have afforded a fundamental molecular understanding of how, for example, the kidneys recover water from primary urine and how the electrical signals in our nerve cells are generated and propagated. This is of great importance for our understanding of many diseases of e.g. the kidneys, heart, muscles and nervous system.

2002 - Fenn (USA), Tanaka (Japan) and Wuethrich (Switzerland) for the development of methods for identification and structure analyses of biological macromolecules. Fenn and Tanaka were pioneers in the development of soft desorption ionisation methods for mass spectrometric analyses of biological macromolecules, whilst Wuethrich developed nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for determining the three-dimensional structure of biological macromolecules in solution. These developments have revolutionized biological chemistry and biotechnology enabling large biological molecules to be studied in detail and are now becoming routine tools in many areas of endeavour.

2001 - Knowles, Sharpless (USA) and Noyori (Japan) for development molecules that can catalyse important reactions so that only one of the two mirror image forms is produced. The catalyst molecule, which itself is chiral, speeds up the reaction without being consumed. Just one of these molecules can produce millions of molecules of the desired mirror image form. Chiral molecules are of great importance in nature. For example, a drug can be made in two mirror image forms, one may have the desired therapeutic action whilst the other is either inactive or possibly has unforeseen detrimental consequences.

2000 - Heeger (USA), MacDiarmid (NZ/USA) and Shirakawa (Japan) for the discovery and development of conductive polymers. These revolutionary plastic materials can, after certain modifications, be made electrically conductive. This has led to a huge research and development field and many applications of these materials for a wide range of uses such as smart cards and photovoltaic devices.

Chemistry is a lively and vibrant discipline underpinning many other areas of science and technology and having a major impact on our world today. There is a great future in Chemistry for you!

Last reviewed: 28 November, 2013