Issue Date: July 4, 2011
The Power Of Math
In “Math for Chemists,” Celia Henry Arnaud discusses the significance of mathematical know-how for a deeper understanding of chemistry and the current dearth of resources to support such math courses in chemistry departments (C&EN, May 2, page 33). She cites a couple of rare math courses offered for decades and geared toward chemistry students.
This brings to mind an excellent one-semester course taught by Richard Ernst at ETH Zurich on measurement techniques and data processing. It introduced simple electronic circuits for data acquisition as well as elements of signal analysis, noise reduction, statistical treatment of data, and their applications in spectroscopy. The course was primarily aimed at undergraduate and graduate students who routinely used NMR. To sustain such courses in times of dwindling resources, however, it may be prudent to redesign them in the current context.
Years ago, when physics had a significant influence on chemistry, there was considerable emphasis on building a solid math background for chemists. As biology gained increasing influence on chemistry, the significance of math in chemistry education receded. In parallel, some chemistry departments were renamed “chemistry and chemical biology.” Paradoxically, biology itself has now evolved into areas that require a math background, for example, in analyzing genetic noise or in biological networks or in imaging. In fact, a recent text in cell biology, “Physical Biology of the Cell” (Garland Science, 2008), contains specific sections such as “The Math behind the Models” and “The Tricks behind the Math.”
Clearly then, we have come full circle, and modern biology now demands mathematical know-how as well. In the interim, college campuses have seen a proliferation of professional-level math software, such as Matlab and Mathematica. Many campuses have schoolwide licenses for their use, providing the impetus for biology, chemistry, and even economics departments to offer courses on the effective use of such software. It may now be more cost-effective for chemistry and biology departments to team up and offer a mathematical methods course jointly, leveraging such software.
Of course, a conceptual understanding of math tools does not necessarily follow, but one hopes that motivated students will be sufficiently inspired by the power of math to explore paper-and-pencil math once again. Development of such math courses should be a high priority for biology and chemistry curricula nationally.
By Ajay Pande and Jayanti Pande
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
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