These days, I think it might surprise you to find how difficult it is to spot a good old fashioned chemistry major (you’d only find 17 in the class of 2013). Once I arrived here at Brown, I was myself surprised to encounter the popularity of newer fields, especially the various flavors of engineering. It seemed as though as the direction of university studies was changing from years past. Intrigued, I sought out Richard Stratt, a Professor of Chemistry at Brown, with a few questions about the fate of his beloved subject.
What I learned from Stratt is this: the nature of chemical study is changing rapidly. Gone are the days in which chemistry could resist bubbling over into other fields. “The problems we face have gotten a lot neater,” he told me. When I suggested that chemistry might not continue to develop in lieu of the growing popularity of more application-based emphasis in engineering, he described how chemistry has spilled into areas like biology. “Chemistry problems are now working at fundamental biological levels,” and that nowadays “people gravitate towards materials applications” as well.
He stresses the importance of cross-disciplinary communication and posits that chemistry isn’t fading out, but rather working behind the scenes elsewhere. For example, his own research regarding friction at the molecular level in liquid and also solvation studies (if you don’t know what these are, stop in and ask him. I promise you won’t be disappointed) is being applied to help us understand DNA in cytoplasmic environments. Perhaps many of these new research papers that come out are under the “wrong labels,” owing just as much to chemistry as they do to genetics or engineering.
Conversation shifted toward the world at large, eventually to the ozone layer and the impressive feats of chemistry involved in discovering how to close up the infamous hole. Grinning, Professor Stratt mused how it is “amazing that we as humans have the power to reverse [some of our impacts on the planet].” Even so, he continued on to pose some insightful points about the very soul of scientific inquiry. For him, the excitement of research is in the fundamentals. As he put it, he doesn’t get up in the morning preoccupied with “working on a world changing problem.” “It’s about philosophy: theoretical, applicable, there is room for both.”
What some people forget these days is that science is not an industrial force driven solely to solve obviously applicable problems. Discovering something new about the microscopic world has the same excitement for a physical chemist as stumbling upon a hidden socio-economic trend has for an economist or a honing in on subtle theme has for a scholar of literature.
“Perhaps we do a disservice by saying the sciences aren’t humanities,” he says, highlighting the unfortunate dichotomy of study in academia. Intellectual discovery is a driving force across all these fields. We can’t forget that there is more value to sciences than the immediate service to society we have come to expect from many modern fields. In fact, as the fate of Stratt’s research has shown, even when science is at the most fundamental level a study of some esoteric curiosity, it can lead to applications in other fields that we never expected.
Stratt, Richard M. Interviewed by: Michael Golz. 2013 Oct 7.