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A year to recognize the role chemistry plays in our lives

The year 2011 has been designated by the United Nations the International Year of Chemistry.

Why this year? One hundred years ago, Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize for her discovery of radium and polonium. Celebrating this finest woman scientist in history is a perfect basis for this choice.

We all should honor Curie, but she serves as a particular model for modern young women. Sadly, however, her scientific standing is unique. A ranking of the 100 most important scientists in history places Curie at 26th -- the only woman included.

Although Curie had earlier won the Nobel Prize for physics with her husband, there is no question that she played a major role in their work together as well. (She is the only woman who won two Nobels and the only person to win in two different fields.) In addition to her discovery of those two elements, she created a theory of radioactivity (naming it too) and established methods for isolating radioactive isotopes. She sponsored the first studies of the use of those isotopes in the treatment of cancer. Although she spent most of her working life in France, with her sister she founded a research institute in Warsaw, today called in her honor the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Institute of Oncology.

With perfect timing, the highly rated book, "Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout," by Lauren Redness, has just reached bookstores.

Also, 350 years ago in 1661, Robert Boyle's book "The Sceptical Chymist" was published. Lawrence Principe says of Boyle, "In his day, the field was held in low esteem; it had no place in universities; its practice was dirty, smelly and laborious. Boyle believed that chemistry should be much more. For him, it was the key to understanding nature." In Boyle's time, it was widely believed that all substances were composed of three essential components: volatile (mercury), inflammable (sulfur) and saline (salt). He rejected this view, paving the way for the development of modern chemistry.

There is no question that chemistry is central to our lives. What would we do without it? The science of chemistry provides a foundation for our understanding of the world and our universe. The production of food products, medicines, fuels and metals -- in fact, virtually all manufactured and derived products -- are based on molecular transformations.

My own academic experiences with chemistry were not all that happy. Chem courses were those with which I had the most difficulty in both high school and college. Indeed, if it had not been for the fact that my final exam substance to be identified turned out to be cobalt (which conveniently produced a blue-green flame when burned) I might not have passed qualitative analysis.

But I am far from the only one who has had trouble with chemistry. I once had a serious stomach upset and my wife called our family physician. The doctor came to our house that night. (You can tell it was years ago.) He questioned me, took my temperature, listened to my breathing, probed my stomach and fed me some pills. Knowing I was a teacher, he told me about his own student background. He told me he liked math but he had trouble with chemistry, which he failed twice. I found this not at all reassuring.

Because I felt that I had never done justice to this subject, I turned recently to a delightful book, "The Joys of Chemistry" by Cobb and Fetterolf. I remember best its explanation of how your toilet works. Once the water begins to flow its molecular coherence pulls the following volume with it.

I salute our chemists, who have brought so much to our modern world.


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