When I started my career in chemistry as an undergraduate, chemists were an optimistic bunch, and everyone supported this view. Eventually, so it was felt, chemists would provide a substance to do just about anything people wanted, provided the laws of physics and chemistry permitted it. Thus something that was repelled by gravity was out, but a surprising lot was in. There was a shortage of chemists, and good paying jobs were guaranteed.
By the time I had finished my PhD, governments and businesses everywhere decided they had enough chemists for the time being thank you. The exciting future could be put on hold. For the time being, let us all stick to what we have. Of course there were still jobs; they were just an awfully lot harder to find. The golden days for jobs were over; as it happened, that was not the only thing that was over. In some people’s eyes, chemicals were about to become national villains.
There was an element of unthinking optimism from some. I recall in one of my undergraduate lectures where the structure of penicillin was discussed. Penicillin is a member of a class of chemicals called beta lactams, and the question of bacterial tolerance was discussed. The structure of penicillin is (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penicillin) where R defines the carboxylic acid to that amide. The answer to bacterial tolerance was simple: there is almost an infinite number of possible carboxylic acids (the variation is changing R) so chemists could always be a step ahead of the bugs. You might notice a flaw in that argument. Suppose the enzymes of the bug attacked the lactam end of the molecule and ignored the carboxylic acid amide? Yes, when bacteria learned to do that, the effectiveness of all penicillins disappears. Fortunately for us, this seems to be a more difficult achievement, and penicillins still have their uses.
The next question is, why did this happen? The answer is simple: stupidity. People stopped restricting the use to countering important infections. They started to be available “over the counter” in some places, and they were used intermittently by some, or as prophylactics by others. Not using the full course meant that some bacteria were not eliminated, and since they were the most resistant ones, thanks to evolution when they entered the environment, they conveyed some of the resistance. This was made worse by agricultural use where low levels were used to promote growth. If that was not a recipe to breed resistance, what was?
The next “disaster” to happen was the recognition of ozone depletion, caused by the presence of chlorofluorocarbons, which on photolysis in the upper atmosphere created free radicals that destroyed ozone. The chlorofluorocarbons arose from spray cans, essential for hair spray and graffiti. This problem appears to have been successfully solved, not by banning spray cans, not by requesting restraint from users, but rather by replacing the chlorofluorocarbons with hydrocarbon propellant.
One problem we have not addressed, despite the fact that everyone knows it is there, is rubbish in the environment. What inspired this post was the announcement that rubbish has been found in the bottom of the Marianna trench. Hardly surprising; heavy things sink. But some also floats. The amounts of waste plastic in the oceans is simply horrendous, and only too much of it is killing fish and sea mammals. What starts off as a useful idea can end up generating a nightmare if people do not treat it properly. One example that might happen comes from a news report this week: a new type of plastic bottle has been developed that is extremely slippery, and hence you can more easily get out the last bit of ketchup. Now, how will this be recycled? I once developed a reasonably sophisticated process for recycling plastics, and the major nightmare is the multi-layered plastics with hopelessly incompatible properties. This material has at least three different components, and at least one of them appears to be just about totally incompatible with everything else, which is where the special slipperiness comes from. So, what will happen to all these bottles?
Then last problem to be listed here is climate change. The problem is that some of the more important people, such as some politicians, do not believe in it sufficiently to do anything about it. The last thing a politician wants to do is irritate those who fund his election campaign. Accordingly, that problem may be insoluble in practice.
The common problem here is that things tend to get used without thinking of the consequences of what is likely to happen. Where things have gone wrong is people. The potential failure of antibiotics is simply due to greed from the agricultural sector; there was no need for its use as a growth promoter when the downside is the return of bacterial dominance. The filling of the oceans with plastic bags is just sloth. Yes, the bag is useful, but the bag does not have to end in the sea. Climate change is a bit more difficult, but again people are the problem, this time in voting for politicians that announce they don’t believe in it. If everybody agreed not to vote for anyone who refused to take action, I bet there would be action. But people don’t want to do that, because action will involve increased taxes and a requirement to be better citizens.
Which raises the question, do we need more science? In the most recent edition of Nature there was an interesting comment: people pay taxes for one of two reasons, namely they feel extremely generous and want to good in the world, or alternatively, they pay them because they will go to jail if they don’t. This was followed by the comment to scientists: do you feel your work is so important someone should be thrown into jail if they don’t fund it? That puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? What about adding if they question who the discovery will benefit.