If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.




December 20, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 51

A new name for ACS?

I was horrified at the suggestion of changing the name of ACS to the Society for Molecular Sciences & Engineering. It is a much more confusing name. A couple of years ago, one arm of the graduate program at Scripps Research Institute had to rename itself from Macromolecular & Cellular Structure & Chemistry to the less confusing Biology.

I fear that ACS would be taking the reverse tack. Moreover, by emphasizing "molecules," you alienate nuclear chemists, nanotechnologists, metallurgists, and geochemists, who frequently operate at the fringes of the notion of a molecule.

You suggest that renaming chemistry is an endeavor which is too difficult. The trick is finding a definition that captures the spirit of chemistry and not the content. Observing the culture of chemistry--as opposed to physics and biology--suggests that a chemist is someone who cares deeply about the diversity of matter and the identity and composition of matter. Biologists tend to care more about systems interactions in life processes. Physicists tend to care about gross energetics, and when dealing with matter, less regard to its fine identity. The appealing thing about this sort of recategorization is that physical chemists, biochemists, and chemical biologists fit very nicely into the intermediate characterization of these cultures, and therefore these definitions do not a priori encourage interdisciplinary division.

The more difficult endeavor would be persuading academia to accept such a sea change, despite the people who are vested in the history and etymology of the names of our respective fields.

Isaac Yonemoto
San Diego

With respect to your suggestion that the American Chemical Society be renamed the Society for Molecular Sciences & Engineering, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it (C&EN, Nov. 8, page 5). Much of chemistry is not molecular science. Where is the molecule in a crystal of sodium chloride? (The whole crystal would probably be defined as a single molecule.) Where are the molecules in a beaker of Pyrex? (There probably aren't any.) Where is the molecule in a crystal of iron? (There is none, unless it is the entire crystal). How about many liquids and gases or even highly cross-linked polymers? I hate it when people try to define all of chemistry in terms of molecules. The focus of most of my lifelong research as a chemist did not involve molecules!

Giles F. Carter
Clemson, S.C.

A year ago, a subset of the founding faculty of the University of California, Merced, faced the task of finding a suitable name for a nascent interdisciplinary graduate group that encompasses chemistry, physics, materials science, and chemical engineering. We decided on "Molecular Science & Engineering" as a reasonably short, simple name that conveys the concept of understanding and manipulating the properties of matter from a fundamentally molecular point of view. I was therefore quite amused to read your suggestion to change the name of ACS. Once again, it appears that California is leading the way.

Anne Myers Kelley
Merced, Calif.

I am shocked at your suggestion for changing the name of ACS. Your reasoning seems to be an attempt to at least re-define chemistry. Why? For those who feel uncomfortable that they are working with (gasp) chemicals? Nonsense. Part of our job is to educate, and we won't achieve that by dumbing down our field for those we need to educate about what we do.

Chemistry is the central science. For this reason, I absolutely disagree with your statement that " 'Molecular Sciences & Engineering' conveys a much broader sweep of scientific and technological endeavor than does 'Chemical.'" Not only are you wrong, you are 180 degrees wrong. "Chemical" is a broader term than the more specialized term "Molecular Sciences & Engineering." Everything that has matter is chemistry, so if you're doing science, you are standing on chemistry. I also disagree with your intentions when you state that the new name would welcome "a wide range of scientists who are practicing chemistry ... including those who just don't see themselves as 'chemists.' " This reinforces my point: If they are practicing chemistry, that makes them chemists.

I also disagree with your desire to remove "American" from our organization's name. The success of our society is due more than anything else to its being "American." This misguided meddling reminds me of a saying of an old farmer I know: "If it ain't broke, fix it 'til it is."

Martin P. Hughes

I was fascinated to read your editorial. Changing the name of ACS makes perfect sense in view of the changing scope of chemistry as a discipline. You identified one of the main reasons for this change: "To encompass the breadth of our science as it exists today and ... as it develops through the 21st century." I especially applaud the inclusion of the word engineering. I think this is extremely important in view of the fact that chemistry (as most of modern science) is no longer a purely liberal arts discipline that is divorced from technology.

I have been teaching chemistry for 12 years at a small liberal arts college. Academics, of course, view chemistry as a liberal arts discipline, and we try to teach it that way, with the idea of developing some general thinking skills and showing its relevance to everyday life. For our majors, though, the future practitioners of chemistry, our discipline is both a foreign language and a complex trade. Becoming fluent in this trade requires enormous effort and time. Therefore, we can hardly afford to teach it from a liberal arts, humanistic perspective.

Historically, "scientist" has been synonymous with "humanist." Leonardo da Vinci (and others, like Albert Einstein) was both a scientist and an artist. The pursuit of science was nearly as "useless" as the writing of a poem. That Earth rotates around the sun was perhaps the most irrelevant and inconsequential piece of information in history. Scientists never enjoyed any special status. The groundbreaking work on the law of constant composition did not save Antoine Lavoisier from the guillotine. Scientists died in the trenches of the First World War. Madame Curie was perhaps the last truly liberal artist who worked for the sake of discovering the secrets of nature. Since the Second World War, the art of doing science, and chemistry in particular, lost its innocence and many of its "liberal" components. This is the time when science married technology for good. Governments all over the world recognized the power of applied (that is, technological) scientific knowledge as a generator of weapons and economic prosperity.

Actually, by that time, the edifice of scientific understanding of how the physical world operates was rather complete. By the middle of the 20th century, the process of understanding the natural world by simple watching, experimentation, and analysis was over. Scientific knowledge had matured to such a high level that any further progress required money, expensive equipment, an army of well-trained workers, and industrial and governmental support. Science was converted from an intellectual pursuit into a for-profit enterprise.

Scientists no longer act as the ideal humanists of the past. Their work environment is different. Today's scientists resemble more the people of the business world. Modern science is not driven by the human quest for knowledge. The driving forces of modern science are mostly economic profit, technological advancement, medical benefits, and material wealth.

For example, Luc Montagnier of Pasteur Institute in Paris was able to isolate the virus that causes AIDS only to be challenged in court by a fellow scientist because huge royalties associated with the development of a screening test were at stake. Bill Gates could have cared less about the elegant liberal arts education offered at Harvard, so he promptly dropped out of college. Instead, a fine combination of good scientific thinking abilities and even better marketeering skills made him the richest man in the world.

The successful development of a new drug is interrelated to the way a pharmaceutical company's stocks are being traded. The recent huge advances in molecular biology are also connected to the explosion of biotechnology start-ups. Didn't Celera (a private biotech company) win the race for sequencing the human genome?

In conclusion, chemistry is no longer just chemistry--a central, liberal arts science that innocently tries to discover the secrets of matter. Modern chemistry is a broad molecular science that is intrinsically linked to technology and engineering. Just like the proposed new name for ACS, the acronym IUPAC also includes both pure and applied chemistry (as if there is any difference between the two).

Vladimir Garkov
Staunton, Va.

You raised an interesting point on redefining the chemical profession. In a related matter, I have read in prior issues how many chemical professionals view chemistry as "central" to several other subject areas. I would like to make a few comments on these issues.

First, I am a chemist by training, but I have spent my career in materials science. From my perspective, if I had to claim that any science was the "central" science, it would not be chemistry, but physics. Although I would agree that taking a chemical perspective often helps researchers in various fields tackle particular problems more effectively, I would not imply that any of these fields of study are "one big chemistry problem." Chemistry is but one aspect with which researchers in interdisciplinary disciplines must be concerned.

It's not all about chemistry. For example, in the field of materials science, researchers are often faced with many nonchemical design challenges (such as fabrication) and materials properties issues (such as mechanical performance). The typical chemist would be of little value in addressing these problems, because chemical professionals are often narrow-minded and don't openly acknowledge the contributions of other scientists and engineers.

Just as general chemistry is a part of the undergraduate curricula of many science and engineering programs, perhaps we need to require chemistry majors to take some introductory engineering. This would better prepare them for careers in interdisciplinary fields. I have found it necessary to become self-educated in these topics to succeed in my work. However, I'm sure formal training would have served me better.

With regard to renaming ACS to more accurately reflect whatever image we're trying to portray, we can't leave out any subfield of chemistry. For example, the suggested Society for Molecular Sciences & Engineering seems to ignore nonmolecular materials chemistry. At least two ACS journals, Chemistry of Materials and Langmuir, are partially devoted to this area. Maybe we should just leave the name alone and remember what chemistry is--the science concerned with the composition, structure, and transformation of matter, and their relationships to properties.

J. Nick Lalena
Puyallup, Wash.

I admire your gumption for putting a serious but unpleasant question on the table. It's true that "American Chemical Society" no longer accurately describes either the organization or the disciplines of perhaps a majority of its members. Still, finding a suitable replacement name will be no easy task. Your suggestion of Society for Molecular Sciences & Engineering may be a better description, but let's think about the pragmatic problem of initials and acronyms. ACS has been easily rolling off the tongues of the members for more than 100 years. C&EN has always been more of a challenge, and saying out loud "SMS&E" poses even worse problems than the latter does. Leave out the ampersand and things approach a dangerous level. It has the sound of Esperanto sending a mixed message: "Es messy."

John R. Peterson
Salt Lake City


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.