by Preston MacDougall
October 19, 2005
Call it providence, or perhaps the promise of "better living through chemistry", but the first female President of the United States of America will be a chemist. My apologies to Hillary and Condi.
And, in case you couldn't decipher the Nostradamus-style quatrain, our future Madame President will follow in the high-heeled footsteps of the first democratically elected, female leaders of the United Kingdom and Germany - Dame Margaret Thatcher and Dr. Angela Merkel.
Actually, Dr. Merkel hasn't been elected German Chancellor quite yet. That is all but guaranteed to happen in the new few weeks though. Her ability to solve complex problems, such as those that she specialized in as a quantum chemist at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin, no doubt helped her piece together a "grand coalition" government after Germany's "hung election" on September 18. Given the rarely-seen (at least in Europe) political squabbling following the election, this is a feat that few thought possible.
Another event that few thought possible was the tearing-down of the Berlin Wall. Prior to November 9, 1989, this impermeable barrier separated Dr. Merkel from the Christian Democrats, the political party that she was destined to lead. The wall, and The Iron Curtain that it was part of, did not collapse under its own weight - not literally anyway. Margaret Thatcher had been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for over ten years prior to this precipitous event, and she had earned the nickname of The Iron Lady. So, in this case, when the unstoppable force met the immoveable object, the object moved. (Sir Isaac Newton would have been gratified to see his First Law of Motion obeyed by world politics.)
Prior to her political career, and marriage to Mr. Thatcher, Margaret Roberts was a chemistry major at a second tier college. Her intellectual gifts earned her a transfer to Oxford University, where she was tutored in advanced chemistry and crystallography by Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. While Professor Hodgkin would go on to win the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (for X-ray crystallographic analysis of the structures of molecules with biological importance, such as penicillin and Vitamin B12), Ms. Roberts took a Masters degree in 1947 and entered politics. It would take over thirty years, but she eventually became leader of the Conservative Party, and then her country. And, some said, "the free world."
This predicted migration pattern of chemically-talented, first female leaders of major economies - United Kingdom, Germany, United States - oddly follows the migration of world dominance of the modern chemical industry. In 1856, with rudimentary facilities in his family's East London home, young William Perkins transformed primitive organic chemistry into the new, and immensely profitable, synthetic dye industry.
Industrial chemistry is the ultimate labor-saving social development. Its custom designed reagents and catalysts, both organic and inorganic, do the work of yeomen, without wages, and never go on strike. As such, the United Kingdom, land of the Luddites, wasn't the most hospitable environment. The center of mass action shifted to Germany just as the chemical industry was starting to branch out into pharmaceuticals.
Bayer launched the new blockbuster drug Aspirin in 1899. Synthetic dyes and drugs both begin their new molecular lives as the result of clashes between chemically forceful catalysts, and rock-stable, over geological periods, petrochemicals. Sir Isaac's First Law rules again.
The first World War, which cut off the supply of German chemicals to U.S. manufacturers, spurred the development of American chemical companies, such as Dow Chemical which initially supplied the drug industry with the bromine that it needed to make the bromides everybody needed to cope with a world that was at war.
The second World War had a similarly boosting effect, particularly in supply of the automobile industry that was getting into high-gear in the U.S. Cars need a steady supply of evermore refined fuel, and the chemists who had demonstrated that they were masters of the petrochemical domain, soon started a new, and hefty branch of the chemical industry.
As the Nazis embroiled Europe in World War II, in addition to supercharging American industries, American universities welcomed many of the world's most chemically talented refugees. Some have gone on to win a Nobel Prize, others started their own market-leading chemical company. All in all, the center of mass action shifted again, this time to the United States, where it rests uneasily.
There is nothing that can protect the U.S. chemical industry from Sir Isaac's First Law. What forces might emasculate it, as the labor movement did, to some extent, in the United Kingdom, or the Nazis did in Germany? The one that worries me is the diminishing scientific literacy of the American public.
So, Madame President, if in the future you have searched the SitNews archives, and are reading this commentary that called you into existence, please make scientific literacy of all Americans a priority for your administration, and a core responsibility for those who follow you.