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If the polymath Charles Babbage was alive, I don’t think he would have said this: ‘With completion of the periodic table, though, and with modern understanding of chemical bonds as quantum phenomena caused by the pairing of electrons of opposite spins, chemistry as an intellectual discipline looks, to the outsider at least, to have been largely solved.’ But the Babbage from the Economist certainly seems to think so.
Err…I beg to differ and so will the millions of chemist who do research. For starters, the periodic table is not yet complete. It may be nearing the end but everyday we learn more about the elements that already exist. Also, the nature of the chemical bond is still not properly understood. If we go deeper things get more mysterious.
One may argue, in both these instances, that we know enough. And so did Lord Kelvin in 1900 when he said ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement’. Then came the quantum theory and since then the ‘we-know-enough’ argument has been countered time and again.
Instead what is happening in the 21st century is that the boundary between different sciences is blurring. And really this is what Babbage from the Economist must try to understand. Ashutosh Jogalekar from The Curious Wavefunction puts it well:
The unique cross-disciplinary nature of chemistry is precisely what makes it the ‘central science’, a field which straddles all of biology and physics. There can be no better tribute to chemistry than the fact that debates are ignited every single year about ‘other’ scientists treading across chemical boundaries.
The philosopher Karl Popper supposedly devised criteria for distinguishing ‘science’ from ‘non-science’ (and often from nonsense). I think he would have had a much harder time devising tests for separating ‘chemistry’ from ‘non-chemistry’.
If you are still not convinced that there is much that Chemistry still needs to find out then you may want to have a look at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Road Map for the chemical sciences. It charts out the eight priority areas where research in chemistry is needed to help solve global problems.