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International Year of Chemistry Opening Fiesta

After Thursday’s sequence of enthusiastic speeches that repeatedly declared that chemistry can solve all the worlds ailments (health, food security, energy etc), the second day of the opening ceremonies of the International Year of Chemistry at UNESCO headquarters in Paris got a bit more concrete on how this actually might happen, with talks from academics and industry leaders on how chemistry can improve nutrition, agriculture, medicine and materials for alternative energy.

But amidst the celebratory feeling in the main auditorium, a different kind of discussion happened at the press conference yesterday that is probably epitomized by reporter questions that went alot like: “So how do you address the criticism that this is all just a self-congratulatory jamboree for the chemical industry?” or “Exactly how is chemistry going to save the world?” The answer IYC organizers gave was not precisely specific or clear, and it landed hard in the press room. I suspect this isn’t the last time similar questions will be voiced.

The IYC is an opportunity for chemists to celebrate their discipline, but it’s also clear that organizers also want to redeem the reputation of chemistry in the minds of a public that often sees the science as a source of pollution. IYC organizers said they want to remind the public that chemistry is the source of materials many people can’t live without—headache remedies and other drugs, toothpaste, iPhones or your favourite pair of sneakers.

To do so, there have been lots of launches in the past two days. There was the video aimed to make 16-20 year-olds think chemistry is sexy. Or the announcement of the world’s first and largest concurrent measurement of pH and chemical content of local water supply by elementary and high school students from Buenos Aires to Bombay. NASA is here promoting it’s earth observatory images. And of course many people were enthused about January 18th’s “Women Sharing a Chemical Moment in Time” (cue Whitney Houston) where female chemists met at 8 am in time zones around the world.

So chemists, celebrate and be joyous. But judging from the questions posed by the only non-chemists here at the opening ceremonies—the media—it might behoove you to be prepared to get specific about how chemistry benefits humanity if you want the excitement to spread outside the chemistry community. And don’t forget to temper those festive chemical soliloquies with some of the risks of molecular science, at the same time as you celebrate many of the benefits.

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