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Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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NOTE FOR CHEMISTS
The American Chemical Society is holding its Seventy-fifth Anniversary Meeting in New York this September, beginning Labor Day. Those seventy-five years in review are more than mildly impressive; the 1876 model chemical science was basically something that Priestly and Lavoisier could have understood readily. But a modern technical session, with discussion of angstrom unit spacings between atoms, the molecular resonances, and the intricacies of enzyme and catalytic action would be a totally foreign language.
Foreign as the modern material would be to those old fathers of the science, the discussions planned on the impact of science - chemistry in particular - on civilization would be just as foreign to the chemists of seventy-five years ago.
In 1876, the primary effort of chemistry was to extract from Nature the desired materials. The background assumption of chemistry at that time - a basic philosophy so deeply assumed that it was not expressed, did not need to be stated - was the proposition that chemistry's business was to find in Nature, and extract in purified form, the materials needed, the ready-made molecules that industry required. Rubber from trees, metals from ores, drugs from plants.
The emphasis has changed vastly in that three-quarters of a century - less than one lifetime. The natural products, today, are extracted, and studied - usually, however, on a microchemical basis. A one-tenth milligram sample is adequate for many researches. Once the natural substance has been isolated and studied, the effort, instead of concentrating on improved methods of extraction, is directed toward synthesis, and towards synthesis of a more desirable similar material. Nature has a certain slight edge on chemical industry in producing useful materials - living things have had some 2,000,000,000 years to experiment. But it still seems highly improbable that the material 2,000,000,000 years of living - experimenting on the part of the hevea tree and its ancestral forms developed for wound-healing is necessarily the best of all possible materials for automobile tires.
The sheep developed, through hundreds of millions of years, a fibrous material, wool, as an effective clothing material. But it seems somewhat improbable that it can be the best possible material for Man's needs. For one thing, the sheep has a perfect solution to the problem of wool shrinkage; just don't wash it, and keep it well oiled with lanolin to protect it against rain. That works just fine - and of course a sheep doesn't mind smelling like a wet sheep.
So much of modern chemistry's effort has been directed at taking atoms rather than molecules from natural sources, or taking molecular fragments from natural sources, and recombining them to totally new synthetics designed specifically for Man's uses. No animal or plant form ever attempted to handle the problem of containing one hundred per cent H2SO4; it is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that a synthetic, rather than a natural product would be needed for the job.
No living metabolism here on Earth is able to handle the exceedingly stable carbon-fluorine bond in any but the most tentative fashion; organic compounds containing fluorine are, as a consequence, practically unknown. But chemical industry, with the high-energy processes available to technical machinery, can handle even such powerful bonds - and produce materials like teflon which are totally immune to corrosion.
The past seventy-five years has been a period of change from the business of extraction-from-Nature to the business of synthesizing totally new chemical systems - compounds like polystyrene plastic do not exist in Nature, yet polystyrene has become one of the cheapest, most widely used, and most satisfactory product-materials. Everything from delicate electronic parts - polystyrene is one of the world's best insulating materials - to cookie jars - polystyrene is cheap, easily molded, attractive in appearance, relatively rugged, and easily cleaned - are being made from it.
But the next three-quarters of a century...? What will be the direction of development?
My private guesstimate:
The beginnings of the new developments are, I think, now in sight. Polystyrene-like materials, required in ton-lots, basically simple, repetitive molecule structures, are ideal for machine production, for purely mechanical synthesis. But the swing away from Nature can go too far - and I suspect it has.
Ecology is the study of the economy of living things; the interrelationships and interdependencies of life forms. All living things constitute a planetary organism, in a sense. Man sprang from the living forms of Earth; he is still a part of the system. In the development of organisms, living cells learned to specialize, to take on special functions, producing substances not intended for their own use, but for the use of the rest of the organism - the adrenal gland, the Islets of Langerhans, the bone marrow that produces cells that live only to produce needed corpses, the red blood cells.
Penicillin is produced by a certain type of mold - but penicillin today is produced by a specially mutated strain that is being fitted into the ecology of Man; the mold is a successful mutation because, in the presence of Man's industry, that is a survival characteristic. The modern cow is a similar evolutionary freak; the dairy cow's characteristics are survival characteristics only in the presence of Man. The modern strains of beef cattle, like red blood cells, live only to produce useful corpses. The modern strains of apple trees are similar examples; their gigantic seed pods produce seeds that are never planted, and never grow; the type is propagated by grafting.
The overall evolutionary mechanism is that Man is creating a planetary organism in which animal forms and plant forms cooperate in mutual survival, instead of individual survival. The liver cells of an animal are incapable of surviving alone, as their remote, ancestral forms did. Man is in process of creating a world-organism of life forms that are similarly incapable of independent survival.
And the chemist is playing a major role in that slow organization; DDT, 2-4-D, many of the sprays and medications that have been synthesized and extracted are playing a role in building that interdependency.
The next step, however, is for the chemist, in his role of biochemist, to start consciously evolving strains of living things to produce the complex compounds he wants. It is easier to produce complex organic molecules that are not simple repetitive patterns, like the synthetic polymers, by biological processes. It is also a fairly simple problem - in its basic theory - to develop, by forced evolution, a biological mechanism that produces the desired substance.
In the past seventy-five years, we have learned techniques for producing what we want synthetically; it seems to me that the next step is to produce the living organism that produces what we want.
That's a legitimate activity for a life form, too!