Chemistry, according to some accounts, is suffering from a publicity problem. Despite the presence of many thousands of chemists in Boston for the recent American Chemical Society Fall meeting — and the efforts of the conference press office — The Boston Globe didn't publish a single story. The only coverage of chemistry in that week's editions were a couple of letters expressing surprise that a recent article in the newspaper on bridging the gap between biology and physics had failed to mention chemistry even once.

Stephen J. Lippard, chemistry department chair at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, highlighted this sorry state of affairs in his talk for the session devoted to ‘Perspectives on Current Trends in Chemical Technology, Business, and Employment’. At least part of the problem stems, he believes, from the view that chemistry does not have any ‘big questions’ to answer. Compare this with the high public profile of, say, physics (with its big bangs and black holes to understand and explore) or biology (life itself remains a complex problem to unravel).

Lippard draws an interesting parallel between chemistry and art. “Chemists study the natural world,” he says, “but like artists they also create new molecules having unprecedented properties.” While these parallels are not new, the concept of using the artistry and creativity of science to communicate to a wider audience seems to be gaining a new following. See, for example, the efforts of Felice Frankel and George Whitesides (On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science, 1997, Chronicle Books, or Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image, 2002, MIT Press) or the recent exhibit of photonic-related images by Jeremy Frey at the Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford ( The idea also reared its head at the ACS, where a ‘Communicating the Art in Chemistry’ reception exhorted chemists to use the stunning images generated as a matter of course in research to bring chemistry to the attention of a wider audience. One only needs to remember the sight of images from the Hubble telescope plastered across newspapers around the globe in recent years to appreciate the potential impact.

But to get back to the root of the problem, for chemistry, Lippard has drawn up a twenty(ish) point plan — a new set of ‘grand challenges’ or what he calls ‘the quiet revolution’ (C&E News (2000) 78 (32), 64–65). The areas he highlights range from the biological to the more materials-related. What is crucial to bear in mind, he says, is that while these issues are not ‘purely chemistry’, chemistry is everywhere — in his grand challenges and many others besides. Harvard colleague George Whitesides echoed Lippard's sentiments in his discussion of the future trends in chemistry. His advice to young chemists is to identify what is needed, look for the big questions, and pursue them.

These visions of the future of chemistry seem to have many parallels and overlaps with materials science. Like chemistry, materials are everywhere. Like chemistry, high profile, ‘big questions’ have not grabbed media attention in recent times. And like chemistry, materials science is sometimes called the ‘Cinderella science’. It certainly has the potential to reach a wider public awareness — perhaps via microscopy images of a new nanoworld. But like chemistry, does materials science need a universal twenty-point plan for the future?

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)01001-5