Chemistry has come to occupy the centrestage among the sciences. It provides honing of reasoning and analytical skills and creativity, enabling scientists to play god at times.
Most of the subjects, including the social sciences, deal with analysing events/ processes, sometimes demonstrating not just the ability to explain but also to predict forthcoming events. However, it is a chemist alone who continues to produce an enormous number of compounds. This has in the past led to bad press for chemistry as it came to be associated with pollutants, synthetic pesticides and insecticides and side effects of man-made drugs. Few paused to note that but for these the green revolution, increased life expectancy and better quality of life, especially in old age would not have been possible. Today, green chemistry ensures reduced pollution and high atom efficiency.
The scientist is no longer satisfied with merely considering the starting material and reaction products but is fascinated by what happens during the course of the reaction. Thus, he spends time studying transition states and reactive intermediates formed in reactions. My own experience with transient species in reactions has led to an understanding that interactions of this kind between proteins present in even femtomole (very, very small) quantities could play a key role in the origin of diseases.
When we are talking about ‘designer drugs’, great hope has been generated for the forthcoming era of personalised medicines where chemistry is poised to play a dominant role (the measurement of big players like cholesterol or glucose may be replaced in the coming years by small players like proteins which may help pathologists and doctors treat patients in a more personalised manner).
Recent decades have brought about a revolutionary change. Material science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, proteomics (large scale study of proteins, especially their structures and functions) and lipidomics (large-scale study of pathways and networks of cellular lipids - molecules, including fats and vitamins - in biological systems) have all arisen out of and are centred around chemistry. Chemistry has started developing a philosophy of its own. Theory has started overtaking experiments.
Theoretical/ computation chemistry are now being talked about a lot. A new breed of chemists – the best example being the Nobel laureate Roald A Hoffman – often does not have to busy itself with any ‘wet chemistry’ experiments. Physical chemists have thus taken to computers in chemistry like fish to water. Kinetics of reactions can now be easily followed by sophisticated computer programmes and software.
This has also led to the emergence of computer-aided drug design as an attractive career option. The laudable initiative of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in launching the Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) encourages students and faculty anywhere in the country and abroad to register, log in to the website and participate in the discovery of new drugs. In this programme, the innovator helps in generating new drugs to be made available to the common man at a reasonable price.
Moving away from classical inorganic chemistry, many transition elements like Molybdenum, Ruthenium, Rhodium, Palladium, etc are being used for new methods to prepare crucial drugs for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. These methods ensure that not even trace impurities of unwanted compounds are present in such drugs, considerably reducing side effects and suffering of patients. Thanks to such developments, our own country has become a major producer of optically pure Menthol used in mouth fresheners, balms and ointments.
Today’s chemistry involves the use of sophisticated instrumental techniques and constitutes the core of modern analytical chemistry. We are poised for a complete changeover and the round bottom flask of the 21st century will be likely to be replaced by palm-sized micro reactors which could be used for all kinds of tests.
Authorities will have to ensure that young Indians have access to such modern instruments in their day to day work. The youth in India is awakened and is even being seen as a threat for the work force of many advanced nations. Institutions have to provide them with the best facilities to ensure they remain enthusiastic about research and win the Nobel prize one day.
Read and watch
* Molecules that Changed the World by KC Nicalaou,Wiley - VCH
* The Same and Not the Same by RA Hoffman.
Useful web resources
* Open source drug discovery -
* Science videos -
* Highly-recommended short and exciting videos of each known elements -
* Microreactor Technology: Chemfiles Vol 8, No 4, Sigma Aldrich -
* Chemical synthesis without a round bottom flask: OptiMax Synthesis Workstation -
* Youtube video, 64 km clouds of grasshopper! Unknown video64 Km of Clouds Grasshoppers!.avi
* Video, How locusts perceive the signal to swarm, Unknown videoHow locusts perceive the signal to swarm.avi
Institutions for higher studies in chemistry
* Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, Mumbai and Delhi
* Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, Pune and Mohali
* Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
* Central University, Hyderabad
* National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore
* Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai
* Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai
* St Stephen’s College, Delhi
* Loyola College, Chennai
The author is head, department of chemistry, and dean, academics, St Stephen’s College