Bringing Sexy Back (to Chemistry)

Heads turn everywhere he goes. Mouths gape when he walks in the room. Your heart may skip a beat. No, it's not Brad Pitt or George Clooney. It's Ajay Bhatt, co-inventor of USB. And he’s one of the heartthrobs at the center of Intel’s new ad campaign “Our rock stars aren’t like your rock stars.” On a similar theme, the June issue of GQ features a six-page spread called “Rock Stars of Science,” which featured cancer and HIV researchers posing alongside, well, real rock stars. (I will reserve judgment for the choice of Josh Groban as a “rock star.”)coming_soon It seems everywhere I look these days, people are trying to sexify science. And by science, I mean everything but chemistry. Over at “In the Pipeline,” Derek Lowe asked readers this week, “Does it bother you, or by contrast make you a bit proud, when you tell someone that you're a chemist and (as happens in about seven out of ten cases) they say ‘Oh, that was my hardest/least favorite/most boring subject when I was in school’?” I’d put the proportion closer to 9.8 out of every 10 cases. I’d say 7 out of 10 times I get a much more—how to put it delicately?--visceral response. So why is chemistry such the red-headed stepchild of the scientific community? Why does chemistry seem so impervious to any attempts to make it more appealing? We’ve made efforts. The American Chemistry Council and Dow Chemical have both focused on how chemistry is essential to everyday life. BASF’s ad campaign points out that they don’t make the products you buy, but make them better. They all work well to soften the image of the discipline and separate it from the general population’s negative associations with the word “chemical.” But maybe we need to push it a little further. After all, an awful lot of the drugs people take were discovered by a medicinal chemist. I’m also going to make a wild prediction that chemists will play a critical role in eventually solving our energy woes. Is the problem that chemistry is just too behind the scenes? Why aren’t our rock stars getting as much attention as, well, Intel’s rock stars? Well, there’s still time to get the word out. The Rock Stars of Science website claims you will soon be able to nominate your own. Suggestions on who might capture the public imagination as the face of chemistry? Other thoughts on how chemistry can bring sexy back?

Author: Lisa Jarvis

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  1. Chemistry can bring sexy back when it crushes its arch-nemesis, the environmental movement, perhaps by co-opting it (‘green’ chemistry) or frontal assault (using real science against amateur toxicologist/epidemiologists.)

    Uh, er, sorry — I let my ranter out a bit.

  2. You guys are the journalists, which chemists can walk into a room and just own it?

  3. It’s a good question, really. Does chemistry need a Carl Sagan type or can the efforts of many individual chemists be enough to raise the discipline’s profile?

    ..and on a different note, check out the Texas carbons to the left of Seal and by the red “Rock Stars of Science” logo.

  4. No, it needs a Carl Sagan type. I nominate Carolyn Bertozzi. Individual chemists can make more chemists (think your awesome high school chemistry teacher, or your 1st organic prof), but only the stupid image stuff (CSI, whatever) can change public perception of chemistry as a science or a discipline.

  5. This is an important issue. Inevitably it’s up to those of us in the discipline to help make the public realise how incredibly cool chemistry is, and what it’s capable of. But it’s up to journalists to ensure that they are connecting with the public, and not with the scientists they’re writing about. We often shy away from selling chemistry, since it’s seen as being beneath us to do so. Long-term, this is a serious error. We need to express surprise when people say “Oh, that was my hardest/least favorite/most boring subject when I was in school” and say “oh, really, why? I love(d) it because x, y and z.”

  6. I nominate Uncle Al of sci.chem fame. Knowledgeable. Charismatic. Controversial. Equitable. Courageous enough to see (and expound upon) how the essential science is integrated into everything from sociology to the newest materials being generated.

  7. What I like about the Intel ads is that it is trying to redefine cool. They’re saying, “Hey world, you wouldn’t be connecting your ipod/camera/etc to your camera without us!” BASF tried to do this in a much more subtle way with its “we don’t make the products, we make them better” campaign. I’m wondering if its time to shift the focus from improving chemistry’s image (i.e. letting everyone know “chemical” does not equal “bad”) and move straight to convincing the public that chemistry is, well, cool.

    I agree, Mat, that journalists need to ensure we’re connecting with the public. But mainstream media seems to be eternally fascinated with physics and doctors (of the medical ilk). And C&EN is pretty much preaching to the choir–so what’s the solution? Do you think there would be merit in trying to rework stories to reach a broader audience?

  8. CSI helped. My daughters’ school now teaches forensics as part of their science curriculum.

    Maybe black leather labcoats instead of white cotton ones? Perception of sexy means showy; how can we add bling?

  9. Rhinestone-studded lab coats?

  10. As I see it, chemistry gets the Rodney Dangerfield “We don’t get no respect” Award because, for the general population, it is a means to an end. For most narratives about medicine, technology or anything that has molecules and chemistry as the foundation (which is, like, just about everything), the chemistry is the backstory. Hard to hear, but it is the case. Pretty much only for the chemists doing the chemistry and for people happy to read a magazine like C&EN is chemistry itself a welcome driver of a story. To bring the chemistry backstory to the foreground in a way that will draw in a wide audience, narratives have to focus on what it is about chemists that motivates them to dive into the exquisite yet consequential minutae that so often is what characterizes chemistry research and discovery. Passion always makes for a good story, so chemists willing to share that passion with, say, reporters, will be more successful at getting their stories out. And a hugely charismatic Sagan-like popularizer so smitten with the Periodic Table’s mix-and-match atomic pantry–and its unsung role as the physical origin of everything that ever was, is or will be–would surely help the cause of telling the big story of chemistry. But even were such a spokesperson to emerge, the seismic changes now unfolding in the publishing, commmunications and entertainment arenas greatly complicate the distribution of the message.

  11. Chemistry already is sexy–at least in Canada. According to the Minister of Natural Resources.

    My Yahoo account still thinks I live in Canada, so when I log in, it gives me “local” news links. The rest of the story I linked to up there is all about some “accidentally” recorded conversation, yadda yadda yadda… But Minister Raitt calls the medical diagnostic isotope shortage a sexy issue.

    Isotopes = chemistry.

    Chemistry = sexy!

  12. Picture This:
    A big budget Hollywood movie staring Shia LaBeouf as a graduate student working out the optimal conditions for an asymmetric epoxidation step in a natural product synthesis. All the while his boss (George Clooney) is all over his back demanding results for the NIH grant proposal he hasn’t started, but is due in 3 days. It has it all, sex, suspense, and synthesis.

  13. Brad, I suggest that the synthesis be for a compound that would cure cancer, diabetes, depression, you name it, but could also, through slight modification, be a chemical warfare agent. And chemists in three continents are racing to be the first to make this wonder molecule in quantities enough to do good or damage. And make elucidation of the catalytic mechanism the key to success. If we can find a way to make reaction mechanisms riveting . . .

  14. “Leave the gun. Take the protons.”

  15. Speaking as an enthusiastic chemist, whose ambitions to work in research have been on hold:
    (a) most of the chemistry jobs are in the developing world (China, India)
    (b) without US scientists bringing in reasonable salaries and having a half-way secure job and
    (c) in the absence of such scientists – especially chemists – being in the position to show on a daily basis the neat things that they do
    (d) it is no surprise that the only impression left of chemists in the popular eye is a negative one.

    Bring back the chemistry JOBS to the US, and the POPULARITY will follow.

    TV specials about the elite at harvards, berkeleys and mits don’t impress the common person because the people featured are not role models.

  16. Obviously, no one who has posted is old enough to remember the “better living through chemistry” from DuPont.

    I also take exception the the rantlet about environmentalists. They’re not the enemy, they’re the conscience. There is an element of truth in the following quote:

    “I have heard intelligent people speak of the carnage done by chemistry. It seems the fourth scourge of mankind, which harms and destroys men peicemeal, but continually, while war, plague, and famine destroy them wholesale but at intervals.: -Baron Montesquiei

    If everyone of us took 4 hours this year and went into a classroom (pre 3rd grade where they start beating the scientist out of us) to do some neat experiment and show kids how chemistry comes into their lives, in a generation there would be at least more chemistry literate people if not more chemists.

    Sexy is as sexy does.

  17. @ Edine – maybe not old enough to remember, but not too old to write a blog post about it. I don’t know that real science literacy can come from the occasional fun demonstration or experiment in class, though. It needs to start with a fundamental understanding of concepts like probability, uncertainty, etc.


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