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Dissemination of Science


International Year of Chemistry shows the science of atoms in our daily lives

WIKIMEDIA COMMONSChemists have put their usual discretion to one side to make 2011 the International Year of Chemistry. Officially launched on January 27 in Paris, with the backing of Unesco, the arm of the United Nations that is dedicated to education and science, and of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (Iupac), the year consists of a series of events to be held in several countries, including Brazil. The expected program here in Brazil includes road shows about chemistry’s historical and current role, the launch of teaching books and materials, meetings with representatives from both the Brazilian chemistry scene and the global one, along with lectures to be jointly organized by the Brazilian Chemistry Society (SBQ) and by Pesquisa FAPESP in São Paulo, all of which is scheduled to get underway in April. Other activities aimed at the general public will be held in other cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, Florianópolis (designated Island of Chemistry) and Teresina, which will host the Ibero-American Chemistry Olympiad.

By means of these activities, the chemists aim to present chemistry – which normally is overshadowed by huge international biology and physics projects – as an essential area of knowledge for the preservation of life and for the continuity of various other fields of scientific research. Because it studies the composition and characteristics of the elements that make up known matter (gases, liquids or solids), chemistry, as one of the core sciences, finds its way into physics, biology, medicine and engineering. In terms of day-to-day living, knowledge in relation to molecular interactions translates into the shape of foods, beverages, hygiene, medicines, fuels, apparel and materials used in automobiles, aircraft, mobile phones and computers. The bain-marie, which is an indirect way of heating up foods and liquids, by means of a recipient containing water that has been heated, is a legacy of the very first chemists, the alchemists. The still, which is absolutely essential in order to produce good cachaça sugarcane spirits, was invented by Arab alchemists.

One of the aims of the International Year of Chemistry is to present these contributions to people’s well-being while also diluting the prejudices that surround chemistry. “A lot of people still say that foods that are free of chemicals are harmless, or associate chemistry with war and destruction,” says Vanderlan Bolzani, a Professor at Paulista State University (Unesp) in Araraquara, the former president of the Brazilian Chemistry Society and one of the organizers of the International Year of Chemistry in Brazil. “However, there?s no way in day-to-day life to overlook the knowledge accumulated by chemists over the course of the centuries.”

The year is also a tribute to mark the hundred years since the Polish scientist, Marie Sklodowska Curie, received her second Nobel Prize. She was born into a poor family in Poland in 1867, lived in Paris and in a male-dominated academic environment, stood out to such an extent that she became the first ever woman Nobel laureate and the first person to receive a Nobel Prize in two different areas. She got her first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, together with Pierre Curie and Antoine Henri Becquerel, for their pioneering studies of radiation, which was identified by Becquerel. She was awarded her second Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911, for the discovery of two chemical elements, polonium and radium. It is expected that part of the programmed activities will award women’s contributions to science.

In Brazil, the Year of Chemistry offers new chances to bring the chemists who work in universities and public sector research institutes into closer contact with those who work in the industrial sector, who are represented by the Brazilian Chemical Industry Association (Abiquim), with whom Vanderlan and the other organizers of the events to be held this year in Brazil are planning joint activities aimed at increasing young people?s interest and enthusiasm for chemistry. “The Brazilian chemical industry, which is now a sector of great vitality and economic importance, requires chemical professionals to be increasingly well prepared,” she says. “Therefore, some of the courses with curriculums that are out of touch with the world of industry need to be rethought. Nowadays the chemical professional has to be very eclectic and familiar with other areas, such as biology and toxicology, in order to assess the potential risks of chemical products for human health or the environment.”? It is her opinion that the SBQ, Abiquim, the Brazilian Association of Chemistry (ABQ) and other institutions linked to this area “could help to construct science that meets the content of the theme of the International Year of Chemistry: our life, our future.”

Another group that is getting more attention is that of high school chemistry teachers. With backing from the Ministries of Education and of Science and Technology, the SBQ aims to print and put into every classroom a copy of the periodic table of chemical elements, which is a basic item, but one that is not always at hand, to make school chemistry more attractive. This is not the first time that university chemistry professors have turned their attention to their colleagues in high school education. Since 1995, the SBQ has been publishing Quimica Nova na Escola [New Chemistry in Schools], a quarterly magazine with support materials for chemistry classes. “High school chemistry classes, which may be training new scientists for this area, don’t have to be exclusively abstract or boring,” guarantees Vanderlan. “We need more chemists to be not only bold, creative and enthusiastic, but also aware of their role as citizens, given the social and environmental problems that lie ahead of us.” The International Year of Chemistry’s national activities can be followed on the SBQ site. The complete program can be found on the International Year of Chemistry site.