Fall 2014

Foresight, Unpredictability & Chance in Chemistry & Cognate Subjects

John Meurig Thomas

In numerous branches of natural philosophy, the ways in which major, transformative advances are achieved are often cloaked in mystery, or arrived at through a fortunate concatenation of circumstances. This theme is pursued here with the aid of some examples from my own work on catalysis (the speeding up of the attainment of chemical equilibria), as well as from the work of others. The emergence of the maser (forerunner of the laser), the development of positron emission tomography, and the creation of blood-glucose sensors for use by those suffering from type 2 diabetes are among the innovations adumbrated here. In addition to describing the unpredictable nature of much scientific discovery, I also describe areas in which new chemical technology will be especially beneficial to society. I foresee that openstructure solid catalysts are likely to transform many of the ways in which chemicals, now manufactured in an environmentally harmful manner, will be produced in the future. Also outlined is the vital need to understand and exploit photocatalysts so as to harness solar energy. Finally, I touch upon the absolute value of chemistry in the quest for beauty and truth.

JOHN MEURIG THOMAS, a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy since 1990, is Honorary Professor in the Department of Materials Science at the University of Cambridge and Emeritus Professor at the Davy-Faraday Laboratory, London. Formerly, he was Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, and Head of the Department of Physical Chemistry and Master (Head) of Peterhouse, Cambridge. His publications include Principles and Practice of Heterogeneous Catalysis (with W. J. Thomas, 2014) and Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and Place (1991). He was knighted in 1991 for services to chemistry and the popularization of science.

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