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IUPAC

Address delivered during the FORUM III

by Professor Albert E. Fischli, Ph.D.,
International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC)

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Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Members of the Delegations, Participants from UNESCO and ICSU, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have the pleasure of addressing the achievements of mathematics and chemistry in the recent past. Unfortunately, I am forced to restrict myself to a very concise abstract of a human activity which has been revealed to be an overwhelming success.

Mathematics

Occasionally some mathematical news are published in the press as well. One example is the application of large prime numbers for encryption purposes. Another is the recent proof of Fermat’s last theorem, which had resisted the best efforts of mathematicians for more than three and a half centuries.

One of the most spectacular cases in this century was Einstein’s use of the non-Euclidian geometry, developed by the way by Riemann in the 19th century, for the formulation of his general theory of relativity.

The last part of this century has seen advances especially in the theory of dynamic systems and in stochastic analysis. One example is the use of diffusion-reaction equations to understand biological pattern formation. Another is the extension of mathematical theory into the domain of non-linearity. A third the advances in our understanding of turbulence, in particular in the context of weather forecasting.

Today mathematics is strongly influenced by advances in computing technology. Mathematical modelling, development of algorithms and scientific computing have become tools for all of the sciences. They will continue to play a crucial role.

Chemistry

The chemical sciences have provided innumerable benefits to mankind through an extremely wide range of applications; to name a few: crop protectants, pharmaceuticals, new materials, analytical tools to study human health and to examine our environment.

Chemists designed a lot of compounds de novo and in the 1980s the football- or cigar-like fullerenes were discovered, a new form of carbon with novel and very interesting properties.

Big progress was achieved in the synthesis of tailor-made polymers, composite materials and ceramics. Some of the latter showed (turned out) to be endowed with superconductivity.

With the help of appropriate computer programmes, calculation of molecular electron density maps was possible, which has greatly increased understanding of stability and properties of molecules.

Organic chemistry was, and continues to be, instrumental to the great advances in the bio-medical sciences. In 1954 with oxytocin for the first time a protein hormone was analysed and synthesized.

In 1959 the three-dimensional structure of hemoglobin, the oxygen-transporting molecule, was determined at atomic resolution. Since then the structures of thousands of molecules have been analysed.

Modern biochemistry, emerging from physiology and pathology using the tools of the chemical sciences, has made crucial contributions to the understanding of the life processes. Today, we know how cells can break down sugar and other food in order to generate efficiently biologically useful energy. It was discovered how plants use carbon dioxide and the energy of sunlight to synthesize organic material. Causes of many inborn metabolic errors have been elucidated.

In the early 1950s, experiments were performed to explore the generation of the first organic molecules essential for life under the supposed condition of the earth’s surface some 3.5 billion years ago. Organic molecules emerged which could well have been the building blocks of early life. Although many of these results are somewhat hypothetical, it has become clear that the genesis of life on earth was possible on the basis of physical and chemical principles alone. Today, the preferred hypothesis holds that life made its first appearance in the form of RNA molecules capable of reproducing themselves.

Creation of new knowledge at the molecular level is propagating with an enormous speed today. We think that the public must be regularly informed about new results. In disseminating news from the molecular level possible headings might eventually read. ‘There are no toxic molecules, only toxic doses’ or ‘There are no copies of molecules, only identical originals, whatever the origin, natural or synthetic.’

Today, chemistry is rapidly progressing towards its own ends. Catalysis, femtochemistry or the chemistry of supra-molecular ensembles can serve as examples. In addition, chemistry is increasing its overlap with biology and physics, a phenomenon also observable in both of the partner disciplines. The chemical sciences are also continuing to strongly expand towards environmental sciences, new materials and health.

It goes without saying that chemical expertise is shedding light on a part of the whole picture only, reflecting the fact that Mother Nature is not organized alongside our anthropomorphic scientific disciplines at all.

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