New Chemistry?

The dramatically increased amount of instantly available information has led information overflow and it is increasingly difficult to make difference between correct and false.

'Knowing history enables understanding today'- It is almost certain that this sentence is a citation from someone, but I was unable to find the correct reference. Or perhaps it has a very old origin and has found several versions during the passing of time and therefore it has turned to a simple notification or a phrase. 

As an organic chemist, I have always admired the research conducted in late 1800 – beginning of 1900. It is purely amazing how they could conduct complicated syntheses and identification of compounds, purely based on their knowledge and on characterization of the physical properties. Repeating these old recipes usually works well with high yields. There are challenges, though – do you know what is 'salt of hartshorn', or even better: 'Hirschhornschuhe' ? - we can only wonder how they survived translation between languages.  

Of course there has been large breakthroughs in chemistry since those days. There has been discoveries of novel reactions, there has been raise of polymer chemistry, as well as material chemistry in general. Not to mention molecular modelling. Chemists have learned how to tailor molecular properties and how to introduce new properties to existing materials. Many of the old, but efficient chemicals or reagents have turned to be highly toxic or otherwise harmful and have been banned. Good. 

Finding correct information (or in my case references) is increasingly important, not only for the chemists. The dramatically increased amount of instantly available information has led information overflow and it is increasingly difficult to make difference between correct and false. This is even intentionally utilized in many places, starting from marketing purposes to whole countries. Dictators seem have a practice to pick up partial truths and twist the history according to their own interests. Unfortunately, this is now taking place in our closest neighbor. 

Also scientists tend to take shortcuts. There was a recent in Nature article about using lignin as a glue, where the oldest reference was to 2017. Nature is a highly ranked journal and the article will certainly get visibility and recognition. Otherwise fine, but the synthesis has been invented in late 1920's. Obviously, the authors did not know about this. Nor the referees. Or perhaps there is some other explanation, difficult to say. Regardless of the reasons, there are major learnings from this article. Publications like this may actually increase the impact factor (IF) of the journal, as the article may gather a lot of citations (IF is a quality factor for journals). Despite this, it is hard to believe this taking place on purpose as an editorial decision. Rather, it can be regarded as ignorance both from the authors and the reviewers. Maybe they did a google search and did not find anything on the topic? Or maybe there were no such references in review articles? An important learning is not to believe what you find first, but one really needs to dig the topic and understand the history. Sometimes researchers say that they're working on a hot topic and aiming publication in high IF journal. Perhaps something went wrong about the priorities of research – finding something new or understanding something not known before gives much more joy than the IF of a journal. 

Chemists are in key position to answer challenges of today and future. It is us, who make efficient processes or generate new materials or drugs. There is a strong need towards circularity and sustainability. Chemistry will resolve these questions. Perhaps I should try to figure out how to efficiently utilize lignin as a glue. 

Ilkka Kilpeläinen, Head of the Department of Chemistry 


Professor Ilkka Kilpeläinen's article was originally published in English in Kemiauutiset2024. Kemiauutiset/Keminyheter/Chemistrynews is an annual magazine published by the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, which provides current news on studies, research, science education and introduces interesting people. The editors Johannes Pernaa and Alon Nudler would like to express their sincere thanks to the authors, contributors and chemists who have made the publication of the journal possible.

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