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Volume 84 Issue 43 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: October 23, 2006

Happy Mole Day

Department: Editor's Page

Today, Oct. 23, is Mole Day, the day we celebrate Avogadro's number, 6.02 x 1023. Oct. 23 is 10/23. Get it? You celebrate Mole Day from 6:02 AM to 6:02 PM—plenty of time for celebrating, even if the champagne waits until the evening.

Okay, so you have to be something of a chemistry geek to find the idea of Mole Day amusing. I first learned of Mole Day many years ago when Pam Zurer, now C&EN's deputy editor-in-chief and an excellent baker, brought a batch of mole cookies to the office to share with the C&EN staff. Zurer certainly qualifies as a chemistry geek. Her mole cookies are a peanut butter cookie with a Hershey's Kiss in the center for the snout and two little chocolate dots for eyes. They're cute. They also taste great.

Last week, I mentioned a Mole Day editorial to Denise Creech, director of the ACS Membership Division and another certifiable chemistry geek, and she directed my attention to the website of the National Mole Day Foundation (moleday.org). NMDF was created by Maurice Oehler, now a retired high school chemistry teacher from Prairie du Chien, Wis. Its purpose is "to get everybody, especially kids, enthused about chemistry."

The NMDF site has information about celebrating Mole Day (this year's theme is "mole madness"), the history of Mole Day, even "A Dictionary of Mole Day Terms and Mole Day Jokes." Yes, they're lame.

It's remarkable how few nonchemists have any idea what a mole is. I asked my wife yesterday if she knew, and she replied, "Only because you told me. I don't remember exactly. It's a measure of something, right?"

Close enough. You can introduce an incredible amount of fundamental chemistry just by discussing the mole: atoms, molecules, atomic weights, ideal gases, the periodic table, solution chemistry. You can go on and on, which is probably why nonchemists, like my wife, sometimes find chemists insufferable.

Chemistry certainly could use a shot in the arm these days. I found the recent announcement of this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry a little depressing. Not because this year's prize winner, Stanford University structural biologist Roger Kornberg, hasn't done fantastic chemistry (C&EN, Oct. 9, page 7). He has. I found it depressing because Kornberg, with a B.S. in chemistry from Harvard and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford, is identified as a structural biologist and because he is not a member of ACS. (I know that ACS Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs is determined to change his membership status, so by the time you read this, Kornberg may well be an ACS member.)

More depressing was the short item that appeared in the Economist on this year's Nobel science prizes. The magazine reported that, "The chemistry prize is for a piece of X-ray crystallography, a favourite subject of the academy's prize committees over the decades, and a way of awarding an extra physiology prize (since X-ray crystallography is used mainly to examine large biological molecules) without confessing that much of the intellectual oomph has gone out of chemistry in the century since Alfred Nobel, himself a chemist, drew up his will."

Ouch. That seems more than a little harsh. As we report in C&EN week in and week out, chemistry has hardly lost its intellectual oomph. In point of fact, the reason so many Nobel Prizes in Chemistry are being awarded for discoveries that are biological in nature is because biology has effectively become a chemical science, which wasn't true when I was a student in the 1970s. Then, you did not bother to ask many fundamental questions about biological systems because the tools did not exist to probe them experimentally. It has been the remarkable advances in chemistry over the past 40 years that have provided just those tools.

Much the same is true in materials science and nanoscience and nanotechnology. Chemical control of atoms and molecules is transforming materials science from an empirical pursuit into a well-defined science. Nanoscience and nanotechnology are, at heart, defined by chemistry.

However, we do need to do a better job communicating the intellectual vitality of chemistry to the public. In a small way, that's what Mole Day is all about. So happy Mole Day!

Thanks for reading.

 
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