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Ubiquitous chemistry

by Donna Nelson, ACS President
April 4, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 14

Credit: Courtesy of Donna Nelson
Photo of Donna Nelson.
Credit: Courtesy of Donna Nelson

The recent ACS national meeting in San Diego, which centered on the theme “Computers in Chemistry,” brought home the message that computers—like chemistry—are pervasive.

The two fields have come to be tightly intertwined. “Computers have had a transformative effect on the chemical sciences, impacting areas from data acquisition and storage to the design of novel materials,” noted Thematic Program Chair Kenneth M. Merz Jr. in the meeting’s program book. “With the ever-increasing performance of computers in terms of networking, central processing unit (CPU) performance, [and] data storage capabilities, the role of computers and computation in our common field of chemistry will continue to grow in the coming years.”

During the national meeting, speakers probed the impact of computers in the chemical sciences through symposia covering such topics as computer-aided drug design, big data science, computational materials and nanoscience, nonlinear spectroscopy and modeling, communicating chemistry through social media, advances in e-learning, and applied geochemical modeling.

While these and other symposia concentrated on the intersection between computers and chemistry, it’s self-evident that computers have spread far beyond the scientific realm. In fact, they are now so common and so integrated into our everyday lives that we’re approaching the era of so-called ubiquitous computing. The late computing visionary Mark Weiser first described this notion in 1988 when he was head of the computer science lab at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He defined ubiquitous computing as the “age of ‘calm technology,’ when technology recedes into the background of our lives.” He added that “its highest ideal is to make a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it.”

Weiser refined these ideas over the following years, sometimes in collaboration with then-PARC director John Seely Brown, who is now a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California and a cochairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, which explores emerging opportunities on the edge of business and technology. In their 1996 paper “The Coming Age of Calm Technology,” Weiser and Brown explained that calm technology provides information without being intrusive and without overburdening the recipient of that information.

We have always been surrounded by chemistry, even if our forebears didn’t realize or fully appreciate its ubiquity.

In practical terms, what might the concept of ubiquitous, calm computing look like? It would consist of a flock of devices connected by means of computers through inexpensive, widely available wireless networks, according to Weiser. “Some of these computers will be the hundreds we may access in the course of a few minutes of Internet browsing,” Weiser and Brown wrote in their 1996 paper. “Others will be imbedded in walls, chairs, clothing, light switches, cars — in everything. [Ubiquitous computing] is fundamentally characterized by the connection of things in the world with computation. This will take place at many scales, including the microscopic.”

For example, the appliances in your house could be connected to your cell phone and to each other, so they could all communicate with one another, requiring only minimal, easy input from you. These networked devices would sense when you left work, so the refrigerator could download a new recipe on the basis of available ingredients and your culinary preferences and could begin thawing steaks for dinner. When the steaks were nearly ready to cook, the refrigerator would alert the oven to start preheating as soon as you arrived home.

Chemistry processes in nature have always communicated with each other in this way. The human body and its chemical reactions have always been interrelated and influenced one another. The same goes for chemical processes in the environment, whether on land, in the sea, or in the air.

There are also some intriguing differences between ubiquitous computing and this concept of ubiquitous chemistry. For example, ubiquitous computing was developed by humans, whereas ubiquitous chemistry arose naturally. Second, computer science started with isolated computers and grew more global, spreading everywhere in our surroundings. But chemistry moved in the opposite direction. We have always been surrounded by chemistry, even if our forebears didn’t realize or fully appreciate its ubiquity. For millennia, the chemistry that enveloped and even composed human beings was essentially invisible to them; it served merely as an unobtrusive tool working in the background.

Later, natural philosophers, alchemists, and chemists became more attuned to their environment and the organisms within it. They began examining molecules and their composition and behavior in gradually more detailed ways, progressing from the macroscopic scale of natural products to the nanoscale. They began to isolate certain processes to reproduce and study in their labs. As a result of their labor and the work of modern scientists, we can now consciously wield chemistry to achieve specific aims.

Ultimately, we may transition to a new era of ubiquitous chemistry that’s closer to the aims of the ubiquitous computing movement. Will chemists use more sophisticated tools that create desired products with scant human intervention?

If you have observations about these previously unnoticed relationships between chemistry and computing, or you want to share your vision of the next step in this evolution to truly ubiquitous chemistry, please share your thoughts at

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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