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‘Chemists are wimps.’ So said Paul Mulvaney of the University of Melbourne in his plenary session at the 11th international conference on materials chemistry (MC11), as he called chemists out for their lack of grand vision and willingness to openly ask the big questions. Referring to a special edition of Science magazine, Mulvaney pointed out that of the 125 ‘big questions’, vanishingly few were proposed by chemists. (Of course, this could say more about Science than about chemists…)
Neuroscientists have the basis of consciousness, medics seek a vaccine for HIV, geneticists still don’t know why humans have so few genes and cosmologists enquire after the very material of the universe, but examples that are purely chemical were conspicuous by their absence. Mulvaney mentioned just one chemical example – self-assembly – but even that, he felt, was poorly defined. His challenge was met by a murmur of agreement and inspired impassioned discussion over wine at the conference banquet.
He may be right to say that the chemistry community are failing to articulate the big questions, but there was plenty of evidence at MC11 that they’re certainly not being wimpish about trying to answer the questions they already have.
Throughout the 8 plenaries, 280 posters and more than 120 talks at MC11, the breadth of topics exposed the vital role of chemists and materials chemistry:
- Stem cell control, new drug delivery methods and tissue engineering (including heart, bone, cartilage and intervertebral discs) highlight contributions to medicine.
- Solar energy capture, storage of hydrogen & electrochemical energy, understanding fuel cells & improving batteries demonstrates a commitment to energy security.
- A raft of materials produced to filter water, separate and capture gases, as well as new technologies for clean catalysis and for reducing marine fouling shows a front-line engagement in tackling environmental issues.
- And developing a deeper understanding of the optical and magnetic properties of systems, nanoparticles and even single molecules will push us into a new era of computing power.
It wasn’t all cutting edge chemistry. Mulvaney’s talk was one in a series of inspiring plenaries, part of a line-up that featured two Nobel laureates, that helped to put recent discoveries and research aims into historical context. Harry Kroto took us on a tour of the universe in search of carbon; with Dan Shechtman we followed the progress of an idea, from outright rejection to the highest praise; to remind us that nothing is really new, Mulvaney surprised us with a dark field microscope – capable of imaging light scattered by nanoparticles – invented in the early twentieth century.
The world’s press were not in attendance. Despite valiant attempts by a handful of twitterers, #MC11 received little discussion outside the venue. Perhaps this proves Mulvaney right, that chemists are too shy about their ambitions. But the science on show proved that chemists are far from wimps.