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Merkel Launches IYC In Berlin

Merkel at opening ceremony. Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron skipped the opening ceremonies for the International Year of Chemistry in Philly, Paris and London, but props go to Germany’s head of state, Angela Merkel–formerly a theoretical physicist/chemist herself–for showing up at the IYC shindig here in Berlin today.

She said some things we’ve heard before, such as how chemists could help solve energy problems (with, say, nanotechnology) and how they already had (by developing energy efficient materials for improved housing insulation, for example). She also talked about Marie Curie as a role model, the promise of young scientists and the irony of the public’s not entirely positive perception of chemicals given that we’re all composed of them.

Merkel hands out awards. Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

But instead of rushing in and out, Merkel stayed around long enough to award three teams of very cute elementary students awards for a competition called Formula One. Effectively, the teams had to build a chemical battery and then race a home-made car for 20 meters. And again, instead of shaking everybody’s hand and moving along, she grabbed the moderator’s mic and started interviewing the kids about their projects. Pretty classy.

Organizers chose the lovely Radialsystem as their IYC launching site. The red-brick water pumping station nestles the Spree River right at the border of the former East and West Berlin. It was renovated in 2006 into a space for the arts and renamed Radialsystem. There’s lots of dance and theater to be seen here, but the last time I stopped by was to listen to some guy’s brain (alpha) waves as he sat on stage with headphones, himself listening to a sequence of conversations which ranged from boring bureaucratic negotiations to presumably more interesting bedroom dialogues. This is also where Merkel spoke at the 2009 Falling Walls conference, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, where scientists gathered to discuss the “walls” that needed to fall in science to improve the world. Continue reading →

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.