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Popular Science: Chemists as children of the Sun on a journey to a stellar future of chemistry

In the play Children of the Sun, written by Maxim Gorky in 1905, the chemist Protassoff exclaims, “But us, us people, us children of the Sun, bright source of life… we will conquer the dark fear of death!” His words became an inspiration for the new communication strategy “Chemists as Children of the Sun” designed by Mgr. Radek Chalupa and Dr Karel Nesměrák from the Faculty of Science, Charles University. Their aim is to highlight successful chemists throughout history and supress chemophobia (fear of anything chemical that prevails in society).

The image of chemistry has been largely negative for several decades, the inevitable consequence of which is a lack of qualified scientists. Students are not interested in chemistry and do not “see” how it underpins everyday things like cars, lipstick, smartphones, or common medication. A change of perspective is necessary but will not be easy. We live in a world where anything “chemical” is demonised and numerous companies make money out of products misleadingly labelled as “free of chemicals” etc. The change should evolve from educating the public to help supress chemophobia as fear of the unknown and that which is far removed from personal experience.

Graphical abstract of the original article,
source: article.

The battle against COVID-19 gave chemists a special opportunity to pursue this goal. The successful development of vaccines, mass use of protective equipment, and intuitive use of disinfectants demonstrated the significance of chemistry, and the individual chemists responsible for those inventions can now become leaders of the new communicational strategy. The new ideal of a chemist is Hungarian scientist Katalin Karikó, who has been named “mother of covid vaccines” as she was present when the first vaccines were announced in December 2020. In addition to her determination to work hard and reach her goal, her ability to communicate with the media is something every scientist should be able to do yet many were caught off guard at the beginning of the pandemic.

Katalin Karikó has thus become another inspiration for the new “Chemists as Children of the Sun” science communication strategy. This approach is highly promising and could bring an effective resolution to the current unpleasant situation. Chemistry is essential for every aspect of our lives. Without it we would not be able to provide all the people with nutritious food, build and heat homes, clothe everyone, and, last but not least, produce medication of all kinds. Chemistry also provides the key to a sustainable way of living and protecting the environment. However, the inability to persuade young talented people to pursue chemistry remains a huge problem. Thus, the field is facing multiple new challenges but lacks the people who can successfully solve them. The essence of the new communicational strategy is to shed light on the successes of individual chemists and the field as a whole – mainly in curing the world’s diseases as the fear of illness, suffering, and death is universal and applies to everybody. The authors also want to demonstrate that chemists repeatedly devise effective solutions and that chemistry is healing.

Katalin Karikó,
source: https://hungarytoday.hu/katalin-kariko-nobel-prize-reichstein-medal-2021/.

For this purpose, Mgr. Chalupa and Dr Nesměrák compiled a list of chemists whose names are connected to the discovery of new medication and vaccines. Notable examples from the list include German Nobel prize laureate Paul Ehrlich, who discovered the drug salvarsan to treat syphilis (an incurable disease at the time), and American chemist Gertrude B. Ellion, who developed a new treatment for leukaemia along with several antivirotic agents, as a result of which millions of people owe her their lives and health. In terms of a Czech representative, we have Prof. Antonín Holý – an absolvent of the Faculty of Science, Charles University and an inventor of multiple antivirotics that have helped countless people suffering from AIDS or hepatitis. Last but not least, we cannot exclude French scientist Louis Pasteur, among whose many successes is the discovery of numerous vaccines (against anthrax, rabies, and so on), which continue to save lives more than 120 years after the chemist’s death.

The war against chemophobia must be fought by the whole chemical community as well as by each individual chemist – from students and industry workers to scientists and teachers. Everybody can contribute as science communication changes from the roots and the easiest way to reach the public is by addressing basic emotions – i.e., worries about the health and lives of ourselves and those closest to us. History and the present day offer a wide spectrum of successful chemists who have made the world a better place to live in and their legacy must be preserved – in the words of a historical comparison: “Faraday changed the world more than Marx.”

Magda Křelinová

Chalupa, R., Nesměrák, K. Chemophobia cured by chemists: chemists as children of the Sun. Monatsh Chem 152, 1045–1051 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00706-021-02814-7

Published: Oct 25, 2021 03:45 PM

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