Whitesides say ‘Analytical Chemistry’ is best chemistry!

Fellow analytical chemist and chemblogospherian Marc, recently brought this article from renowned Harvard chemist George Whitesides to my attention. Here’s my response, and there’s also an excellent post over at The Curious Wavefunction.

I don’t think this article is as bad as some people were saying, actually I don’t think it’s bad at all. Certainly he got this analytical chemist onside in the first couple of paragraphs with these choice quotes:

Measurement (or “analysis,” which arguably includes both measurement and interpretation) is the axle around which this wheel turns. So, everything in science is—in this sense—“analytical”.

Analytical chemistry […] is essential to the chemical enterprise.

So there you go. Analytical chemistry is great. End of post.

Or not.

I guess that Whitesides, in his eminence, has earned the right to pontificate on topics of his choosing and journal editors are clearly willing to grant him page upon page of column inches to do so. The article may be a little long-winded and in places quite fanciful, it’s not like he’s chucking a Breslow here guys. It’s basically a mashup of serious commentary, plugging of his own current research interests, and wild speculation. He also isn’t (as some suggested) advocating ‘black box’ analytical chemistry either, and stresses that analysis is equal parts measurement and interpretation.

Whitesides is certainly not saying that synthetic chemistry should no longer be done, or it is no longer a worthwhile pursuit. It’s undeniable that the bulk of the successes of chemistry in the last couple of centuries have been built on synthesis. Having said that, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the emphasis could be shifted slightly away from synthetic chemistry. Currently, at my undergraduate and postgraduate institutions, synthetic chemists comprise roughly 50% and 45% respectively of faculty and I don’t think this distribution is appropriate for addressing the ‘grand challenges’ of chemistry in the future.

My personal opinion on the future of analytical chemistry as a discipline, is that it may not continue to be a useful descriptor for a subset of chemical studies. In fact, I would not be surprised, or even unhappy if in the future ‘analytical chemistry’ as we know it today ceases to exist. My reasons for saying this is aligned with what I think Whitesides is saying in this article. That is, that analytical chemistry is such an essential part of almost all of the chemical subdisciplines these days, that it will become absorbed into and assimilated with existing (or new) fields. For example, in my current role, I alternate between calling myself an analytical chemist and a fuel scientist, and the reality is that I am both. I am a fuel scientist, who uses the tools and techniques (GC, LC, MS) developed by the legacy of analytical chemists before me. And in doing so, I am not too different from the synthetic chemist who uses conducts analysis by NMR and IR, or the materials chemist who analyses with XRD and AFM. The only distinction being that I am not ashamed, indeed I am proud, to be a practitioner of metrology.\

May analysis no longer be the ugly duckling of the chemical sciences. Viva la anal. chem.!

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