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What's 'real' chemistry?

Readers' comments stating that the 2010 chemistry Nobel Prize had finally gone to "real" chemistry popped up in the media and among my friends and colleagues. It makes me wonder what that term means, or even if there is such a thing.

Soon after the announcement of the 2010 chemistry Nobel Prize, readers' comments stating that the award has finally gone to "real" chemistry popped up on the NY Times, and various other places.  I heard similar sentiments among friends and colleagues.  All this talk of "real" chemistry makes me wonder what that term means, or even if there is such a thing.

In the last several years, the Nobel Prize most frequently went to research on the functions, processes and structures of biological molecules.  This year the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences honored Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki for developing Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling reactions.  If this year's awarded work stands out as a genuine example of chemistry, then perhaps some believe that synthetic endeavors are necessary in "real" chemistry.  Alternatively, people might not like the idea of blurring the line between chemistry and biology.

In either case, the opinions are out of place with current research, where progress is relying more on multidisciplinary work and collaborations.  Actually, those views wouldn't work for traditional chemistry either.  Before Alfred Nobel was inventing dynamite, renowned chemists were making advancements in multiple fields.  To name a few: Robert Boyle was a chemist and physicist; John Dalton worked in chemistry, physics and meteorology; and Louis Pasteur made his mark in both chemistry and microbiology. 

Somehow, I can't imagine those great scientists worrying too much about definitions and boundaries of scientific disciplines.  Current researchers are no different, as they often utilize all available tools to solve problems and expand our knowledge.   Distinctions do become an issue during award decisions.  However, we should be delighted that good work has been honored and brought to broad public attention, instead of concentrating on labeling awarded research.

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