26 November: Karl Ziegler, Nobel Prize winner for his work on polymers (which paved the way for plastic), was born on this day in 1898

What colour is chemistry? Anyone who’s seen “Breaking Bad” will reply that it’s blue, rock crystal blue rock. Anyone who’s thinking about the plastic that surrounds us everywhere will say that there’s too much of it and that it’s too colourful. Anyone who’s thinking about burning oil wells will have only black in mind. But what colour will chemistry be in the future? To answer that question, we’ll have to consider the analogies between the Nobel Prize awarded in 1963 and the one assigned a few weeks ago. The key word for both of them is “catalyst”, an agent that intervenes in a process and speeds up its outcome, then quietly recedes.

The 1963 Nobel Prize was a relay race between Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta: the former recreated natural rubber in a test tube, the latter the substances that accelerate this process. Since then, plastic has gone wild and now rules every aspect of our lives. The 2021 Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to Benjamin List and David MacMillan. And here too it’s a question of speed, because the two engineers have discovered a third kind of “organic catalyst”, one that – so the Royal Swedish Academy of Scientists informs – will make chemistry greener. Perhaps we’ve stumbled on chemistry’s future colour.

The two prize-winners are only 53 years old and have perhaps achieved their success so early on in life thanks to catalysts and calculators that their colleagues of the past wouldn’t have even remotely been able to imagine. Measuring instruments change, but we’re certain that a bright light on a night desk will continue (in the shadows!) to be the unnoticed catalyst for discoveries of all kinds, for a long time to come.

Name Day
St Siricius, Pope