Indeed: 2011 was the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). But why IUPAC and UNESCO dedicated a year to that basic science? It was for two reasons: one looking at the past and one looking at the future.
Looking at the past, 2011 was the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie‘s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. And her discovery was very important for both the science in itself and its applications to health. Radium’s radioactivity seemed to contradict the principle of the conservation of energy. The discovery of radium allowed other great names in chemistry and physics like Rutherford to study the atom and radioactivity decay. In medicine, the radioactivity of radium allowed the development of radiation therapies, used to control or kill malignant cells in cancer treatment.
But 2011 was also the 100th anniversary of the first Solvay conference which subject was “Radiation and the Quanta”. Marie Curie was obviously present, along with Henri Poincaré, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford and Albert Einstein among others. It was held at the Hotel Metropole, in Brussels (yes, in Belgium 🙂 ). Solvay conferences in physics and chemistry still continue now.
So IUPAC and UNESCO wanted to commemorate the achievements of chemistry and its contributions to the well-being of humankind in general. And 2011 was full of activities all over the world (there was probably one near your place and there are still plenty of activities prepared for 2012!).
One of these activities was the creation of a team of young people/scientists who debated and introduced their ideas and expectations from life sciences and chemistry, industry and governments to build a better world in 2050. I am grateful to my company to have chosen me to represent it in this “Young Leader” team: it really was a great experience!
Every member of the team came from different horizons (Europe, Asia, America, Africa) with different backgrounds all related in a way or another to chemistry (but it’s true that we were mostly chemists and engineers). We started by the simple statement that “chemistry is everywhere and for everyone“. It’s quite obvious but if we are often reminded of the negative impacts of chemical products and chemical reactions, chemistry also enabled billions of applications and made possible to feed more people, give them shelters and potentially a better health. It’s not roses all the way ; mankind has lots of efforts and progress to make. But if you think of the computer you are using to read this post, for instance: it’s working thanks to thousands of chemical compounds and chemical reactions. And on top of that, chemistry is also a natural process (well, first, it’s a natural process). When you eat your breakfast, when you listen to a lecture, when you attend a meeting, when you practice some sport, when you meet friends, when you sleep, you are full of chemical reactions, using thousand different chemical elements.
But as the world is facing important challenges like overpopulation, energy depletion, pollution, etc. or simply because people want to make their lives better it’s also true that chemistry is our future and will play a role in tackling these issues. But instead of depicting a sad, pessimistic view of these issues and just enumerating technical solution chemistry is or will be designing, the team decided to work on a vision for 2050 and ways towards this vision:
By 2050 we must all have access to healthy, safe and fulfilled lives in symbiosis with our planet
With concrete examples of existing or budding chemical technologies and solutions allowed by the development of chemistry, we wrote three concrete stories of people who would have made a change in the future. Most megatrends were debated, lots of research was done to find scientific evidences of change or application. Better water distribution and usage, smarter housing, increased yields for locally produced food, more efficient energy production and storage mechanisms were among the topics we discussed. Health was also present as education, biotechnologies (like new delivery and detection methods), collaborations and policies also play a key role, with chemistry as a pervasive partner.
A milestone for the group was the Closing Ceremony of the IYC that was held in Brussels, on December 1st, 2011. We had to transmit that vision, the way we think it can be achieved to students and members of the chemistry community. It was a great pleasure to see the high level of interest and, for most of them, of passion the young students have towards Chemistry. Their questions, their curiosity about the future, their questioning of the implementation of our vision as well and their thirst of knowledge were amazing. It was also very, very interesting to listen to Ada Yonath’s talk about ribosomes but also science, curiosity and her passion. Professor Jean-Luc Brédas, Francqui Prize in 1997, also gave a very interesting talk about new and more efficient energy sources. Finally, the debate, the round table between main actors in the world of chemistry, the ideas, comments, discussions that followed were all very instructive and enlightening.
Fortunately this is not the end. All these ideas and discussions will definitely feed discussions and our efforts to maintain a platform for chemistry and its ways to help for a better future. We already started with a Facebook group. Central science created special topics about IYC activities. Nature created an IYC website with dozens of articles about everything from research to careers. And I hope to be able to write again about other initiative and, of course, about the fulfillment of our vision in 2050 (or even before!).
Photo credits: Marie Curie, from Scientific American by Wyoming_Jackrabbit (CC-by-nc-sa on Flickr). The photo of the Solvay conference was taken by Benjamin Couprie and from wikipedia. Photos of the YL group and the closing ceremony are from Vivian Hertz.