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Vol. 31 No. 4
July-August 2009


Secretary General's Column: Did You Say IUPAC? What’s That?

by Nicole J. Moreau

In no more than a year and a half, it will begin. Of course, you understand that it is the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). Last year at this time, everyone was on the starting blocks, and in a state of expectation. “What can I do to help, now?” was a common thought of those involved in the process of establishing the IYC. I had to ask my national chemical society’s president to write to our country’s delegate at UNESCO and then the UN. I did the same with my national Academy of Sciences. And why not ask the president of this important chemical industry to show support for this IUPAC initiative?

Now that the year is official, another kind of angst is growing: There are so many things to do, so many committees to manage, not to mention funds to be raised. Clearly, there is no shortage of good ideas: Nearly everyone you ask has many ideas to propose. The most difficult aspect of the IYC so far may be how to manage all this abundance.

Chemistry is very well known. The word says something to everybody, from the bookseller to the butcher, from the farmer to the mathematics teacher, from the journalist to the clergyman, from the unemployed person to the house painter. But how many meanings of this word are there? And, above all, how many misunderstandings? This is precisely why it is so exciting to prepare for the IYC. Life would be very sad without a challenge to take up. I think that many of us, in preparing for the IYC, start to develop an advocate’s mind: We have matters to discuss, arguments to prepare, and people to convince. If you are like me, you might imagine yourself in front of a certain audience, a hostile one, of course, trying to find the best way to explain what chemistry is. It is not only organic synthesis for example, but above all it is “knowledge.” Chemistry is the science that explains that everything, from our own hands to the bark of a tree, the water we drink, and the air we breathe, is made of molecules.

But, I let myself be carried away, and the preceding paragraphs do not correspond at all to the title of this issue’s column. It is not about chemistry that I want to speak, but about IUPAC. As will become apparent, this column is a little joke and was written for fun, and all the “statistics” I mention below have no foundation, except in the author’s mind.

So, let me replace the word “chemistry” with the acronym “IUPAC” in an earlier sentence: IUPAC is very well known. The word says something to everybody, from the book seller to the butcher, from the farmer to the mathematics teacher, from the journalist to the clergyman, from the unemployed person to the house painter. But how many meanings of this word are there? And, above all, how many misunderstandings? Obviously, the first sentence is now false, and the answer to the question “how many meanings?” would be “zero.” And that is not exciting at all, and if you like IUPAC, as we all do, this fact might lead you to a nervous breakdown. However, it is a matter of fact: IUPAC is not well known.

So, who does know IUPAC, or, who at least knows what our acronym stands for, even if he or she doesn’t know precisely what it corresponds to? We will eliminate the members of IUPAC from our count. Among chemistry professionals, young people do not know the name, except perhaps those whose supervisors suggested they apply for an IUPAC prize at a conference, or who are meticulous about nomenclature and who therefore make sure that young chemists also know about IUPAC rules. I would say that in the academic chemistry world, most of those older than 50 have heard about IUPAC. However, the number seems to rapidly decrease with the age of the chemist. From industry, I suspect that the number of people who know of IUPAC is probably lower by at least a factor of two or three.

It is my feeling that when it comes to who knows IUPAC in other areas of science, the number decreases, but the more knowledgeable of IUPAC are the disciplines at the frontier of chemistry: physics and biology. Despite our relationship with the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, mainly involving the naming of new elements, physicists are less likely to know IUPAC than chemists. The same probably holds true for those in bio-related fields, with decreasing scores from biochemistry to biology, and then to genetics.

If we look at the humanities, we can probably find some persons knowledgeable about IUPAC, more likely historians of science. Perhaps there are a few sociologists who have heard of IUPAC, especially among those establishing statistics about the “associative sense in the intellectual population.” In psychology, it is probably those interested in “the herd instinct and the need to live with your kind among poorly imaginative and excessively rationalizing populations” who know of us.

Let us now move to the nonscientific population. We may find some groups in which individuals have heard about IUPAC (e.g., ecology associations, farmers trade unions, the staff of state organizations, government ministers, UN bodies, etc.). However, the level is generally very low, particularly among politicians and lawyers (unless of course if they deal with chemistry related issues, most likely pertaining to nomenclature).

If we look at the balance sheet, knowledge of IUPAC is poor, very poor. But the worst is still to come, because we did not yet examine the opinion these people have about IUPAC. Needless to say, as we excluded from this putative survey members of IUPAC, the opinion is seldom, if ever, appreciative.

Let us first have a look at national chemical societies. In some cases, chemical societies are the national organization representing in IUPAC the chemists in that country, but alternatively it might also be a national chemical council, a national academy of science, or other institution or association of institutions representative of the national chemical interests. Except when such societies are National Adhering Organizations of IUPAC, it seems that there is some mistrust: Either they suspect IUPAC is trying to surpass them or attempting to take over their area of expertise, or they feel IUPAC is unworthy of consideration, useless. In their publications, the Union is only mentioned occasionally. Of course, it depends strongly on the membership of their boards, and may change, for better or worse.

It should be noted that historians of science have a good opinion of chemists; furthermore, our impact factor will increase when they find out we are planning a huge celebration of Marie Sklodowska Curie! Among physicists, those who work on IUPAC projects or who are members of IUPAC divisions know the Union quite well and appreciate it for its important contribution to nomenclature. The others are rather dubious about the usefulness of a Union dealing with something other than physics. The case of biologists is a special one: there are many small Unions dealing with biology, and as a consequence, biologists are not very aware of them; so, it is rare for them to know IUPAC, except for the ones working at the interface of chemistry and life sciences, generally affiliated with the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Their opinion about IUPAC will follow their opinion of their own union, and I hope it is a good one. Perhaps we could find some, albeit condescending, appreciation from sociologists, because “the tendency to association is a good cement for a solid society.” Here too, we will observe a clear increase in positive opinions when they hear that we will celebrate women in science in 2011. We should expect the same opinion from psychologists because “feeble minds need the support of their kind to be able to live almost normally in our stressful society.”

This was the best part of the matter, and it is now the moment to have a look at the opinion of nonscientific people. It seems that some policy makers and members of various nongovernmental organizations may have heard about IUPAC. In the case they know with no error the nature and mission of IUPAC, they cannot underestimate a scientific, international, nongovernmental, nonpolitical union. But unfortunately, they rarely think of turning to IUPAC when there is an issue the Union could help resolve. Generally, policy makers prefer to turn themselves toward well-known NGOs, those who supposedly work only for the benefit of humankind, while IUPAC is assumed to work for the benefit of chemistry.

In certain circumstances, some NGOs perceive IUPAC as a rival organization with which they are fearful of sharing influence or money. This fear is unfounded, since IUPAC is, first and foremost, a scientific organization firmly focused on the well-being of humankind. If our Union proposes to use its expertise for sustainable development, it is not to gain money or influence, it is to help people and the environment and to become better known as an organization that can help with such things.

Many people in IUPAC sincerely think that the Union can help the planet and its inhabitants share a better and more sustainable future. But how can we manage to move in this direction? It seems to me that the first step is to make the exact nature of IUPAC known and understood. This is easy to say, but very difficult to carry out: It is not the first time one of us has made such a statement, and the progress is still poor.

But, thanks to IYC, perhaps we can become much more optimistic than the author of this column seems to be. Clearly, it is more urgent than ever to make IUPAC known in more places and by more people. It is a challenge, and we all have a share of work toward that goal.

Nicole J. Moreau <nj.moreau@free.fr> has been vice president of IUPAC since January 2008. She has been an elected member of the Bureau since 2000 and a member of the Executive Committee since 2006. She is also general secretary of the French National Committee for Chemistry.


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