Wait for the bang...

The week got off to a bang – literally – this evening with the opening of the EESC’s ‘Chemistry and Culture Week’ – a week of activities designed to educate and inform about the important role of chemistry in European culture. You can see Vice-President Anna Maria Darmanin interviewing the prime organising force behind the week, British member David Sears, (Employers’ Group) here. This evening we heard from Alexis Boruhns, General Manager Europe of Solvay, about the international year of chemistry, Mrs Ambassador Tombinski, who gave a simultaneously lively and learned account of the life of Maria Sklodowska-Curie (the Committee is hosting an exhibition about Curie’s life all this week), Nineta Majcen, General Secretary of the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences, about the particular qualities of water, and we were treated to a chemistry show by Technopolis (which is where the bang came in). We were also given a lecture by Professor Doctor Gerd Wolf (Germany, Various Interests Group), one of our most learned and respected members, and he has agreed that I can post it here (see below). Written entirely by the Professor himself, it is a lyrical exposition of the theme and an excellent example of the expertise of our members.

Keynote Speech for the


Year of Chemistry

3 October 2011 Brussels

European Economic and Social Committee

Chemistry and Culture

Gerd Wolf

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Colleagues,

This week we celebrate chemistry. And we are also celebrating it as an integral part and driving force of our culture.

Chemistry is a science, a technology and an art.

Its aim is to analyse and understand the substances presented to us by nature, but also to produce new substances we want or need.

Together with physics and biology, chemistry created our present knowledge about nature, and it provided the basis for our present technology and standard of living.

The word culture is derived from the human activity now termed agriculture. Agriculture is thus at the very roots of our culture, agriculture is how everything started.

People settled, developed a division of labour, and founded the first communities, the kernels of civil society.

Today, culture and civilization embrace art and technology, science and research, ethics and religion. And also much more.

Culture and civilization embrace all the complex rules and forms of social interaction: laws and equal rights, personal freedom, government, democracy, social services, health care, and much else besides.

This includes satisfaction of our basic needs. And it includes everything that gives us zest for life – the prerequisites for a fulfilled life at peace with ourselves and our fellows.

The citizens of the EU have now achieved a level of personal freedom, legal security, education and democratic participation which is unprecedented in the history of their nations.

We are able to keep ourselves informed about and in touch with the whole world.

We are able to land research robots on planets and their moons, and we can observe galaxies billions of light years away.

We build aircraft for 500 passengers, and we use X-rays and magnetic resonance tomography to scan the human body.

We can measure femtoseconds and minute quantities of trace elements. We navigate our cars by satellite.

Pain-free open-heart surgery has become commonplace; we transplant organs, analyse DNA, and conduct research into stem cells.

Over the last century, average life expectancy has increased by about 30 years, and it is still increasing. Agricultural yields have almost tripled over the last 50 years.

All year round, we are able to enjoy a choice of fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, fish and meat – something that would have been unimaginable even just 70 years ago, during my own childhood.

In our countries, famine is unknown; we discuss obesity rather than malnutrition, we discus the “demographic problem” – meaning old age – rather than premature death. And even India is now able to sustain its rapidly growing population.

Increasingly large areas of agricultural land are being used to cultivate luxury goods such as wine or asparagus – or fuel for our cars.

However, this was not always so.

Many of us have already forgotten how people used to live. We no longer even realize how much we owe our quality of life to such progress, for example in the fields of medicine, food preservation, fertilizers and refrigeration technology.

Many people no longer remember the ravages of potato blight, ergotism or scurvy. They are not aware of the – at the time unknown – health risks of mycotoxins. Hunger and want have been forgotten, as have tyranny, serfdom and slavery, torture, fanaticism and ideological oppression.

Overcoming all these is the result of a very long cultural development with many ups and downs. It is the result of the constructive interaction between individuals, and between individual aspects of our culture with those of others.

In particular, however, based on the experience of the preceding terrible religious wars, and influenced by the early ideas of humanists like Erasmus of Rotterdam, it is the fruit of a nearly revolutionary process characterizing the age of enlightenment, also called the age of reason.

And it was in that very age of reason, where not only the ideas of free thought, tolerance and human rights were promoted, but where science also gradually liberated itself from the petrified myths and doctrines of our forefathers, where science focussed its methods on reason and experiment.

Man dared to eat again from the tree of knowledge.

Characterizing this revolutionary process, like Phoenix from the ashes, the science of chemistry emerged from the mysteries of alchemy, while it profited from the techniques already developed there.

It is worthwhile to note in this context that even the great genius Isaac Newton was still also deeply involved in alchemy.

Chemistry emerged from the search for the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, and in doing so brought forth rich, rich fruits.

And it was the great chemists of their time who influenced society and the whole process of enlightenment. Indeed, their results and successes were a demonstration of the power of reason. They influenced society and they became a driving force for the general cultural progress of enlightenment.

It was great men like Boyle, Lavoisier and Faraday, who paved the way for modern chemistry and the required stringent scientific approach.

They distributed their knowledge to society in public lectures; they paved the way for Wöhler, Liebig, Solvay and Haber.

They paved the way for our present standard of living.

Last but not least, chemistry participated in the technical revolution which, thanks to enough available energy, liberated most people from the need for and burden of hard physical labour.

This allowed us to train and educate the young for a significant fraction of their life span before entering the labour market.

This was the prerequisite for our knowledge society.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have spoken of the overwhelming progress of culture and civilization, and of the essential contributions made by chemistry.

Despite all this, however, it appears to me that a large part of our society is more concerned about the potential risks and threats which may be caused by the use or abuse of chemicals.

Indeed, chemistry has not only provided medicines, dyes and fertilizers; it has also produced explosives and poison gas.

Therefore, this attitude is not entirely unjustified.

However, it lacks a sense of proportion. It lacks the knowledge of what things used to be like before and how they could become again.

And it lacks gratitude to and appreciation of the enormous achievements of these great pioneers, of science, of the science of chemistry.

And it lacks our expectations, even our need, that the science of chemistry will continue to help us in the future to overcome yet unresolved problems, to help us, for instance, develop a sustainable energy system. As an example, there is a particular need for novel storage and conversion technologies for electrical energy.

Therefore, Ladies and Gentlemen, let us not embrace that attitude. Let us never forget what our existence used to be like and what has been achieved.

Let us celebrate the capabilities and achievements of the human mind. Let us celebrate chemistry as an essential element of our present culture.