As anyone who’s used Google today will already know, it’s the birthday of Gideon Sundback (1880–1954), the Swedish engineer who brought the zipper to the world. Sundback’s invention has obviously had a profound and lasting impact on the clothing industry, but its influence extends far beyond that. Notably (for us at least…) the humble zipper has become an indispensible metaphor in chemistry.
Pumping ‘zipper’ into the RSC publishing platform, for example, returns 458 hits. We’ve got metal-organic nanotube zippers, trigonal tryptophane zippers, leucine zippers… the list goes on. And it turns out we aren’t afraid to reach for the zipper metaphor here at Chemistry World either.
Which begs the question: how would such work have been described if the zipper had not been invented? And more interestingly how might actual research have been different? The relationship between language – full of weird and wonderful cognitive scaffolding such as our beloved zipper metaphor – and science is complicated. But we know it isn’t a one way street: to some extent language informs creative thought – which means chemistry owes a debt to Sundback and his zipper.