Chemical & Engineering News,
March 27, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by the American Chemical Society.

The Revolution Comes To The Chemical Community

James Krieger

Computing is not about computers any more," writes Nicholas Negroponte. "It is about living."


The revolution comes to the chemical community

Negroponte is professor of media technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding director of the Media Lab there. The quotation comes from his new book, "Being Digital," published last month by Alfred A. Knopf, New York City. Becoming digital is what the information revolution is all about.

Much has been spoken and much has been written in recent months reflecting on the meaning of the information revolution that seemingly everyone agrees has begun. The preponderance of the talk and writing has been generated by media fascination with the idea of an information superhighway. Speculation on what could be in store for American society as a result of the superhighway's further development can certainly be credited with keeping the nascent information revolution prominently in the public consciousness.

But there is more contained in the idea of an information revolution than just ordering pizzas on the superhighway or getting movies on demand. Many sectors are involved, and the world of chemistry is surely one of them.

Chemistry has been undergoing computerization for a long time, with many of its activities becoming "wired." But for much of that time, computerization amounted to not much more than automation of traditional chemical tasks.

The point now, however, is that these endeavors have reached a place beyond computerization. What is traveling through the wires, fibers, circuits, and ether is information, and information is more and more being considered the subject of the exercise - something that is generated, acquired, moved, and consumed.

It puts what is happening in a different light.

Wherever one looks today, activities focused on information are taking hold in the chemical community - whether in research, process design, or sales and marketing. Taken together, they are beginning to transform the chemical world.

A major locus of that transformation is the desktop, where much of the information is generated and gathered and from where it is transmitted. But a goodly portion of the activity involved at present centers on the Internet, the network of networks that has become a global medium of communication. Electronic mail flies back and forth. Files get transferred. Gossip as well as useful information gets posted on bulletin boards. And information is acquired from numerous resources via the Gopher sector of the Internet, a hierarchical system of file servers maintained by many parties on the network.

But probably what has caused the greatest excitement of late about the Internet is that area called World Wide Web. The web, or WWW, is a client-server system that links computers worldwide into a hypermedia universe. It enables users to transmit or acquire not only text but graphics, audio, and video files. Basically, a user maneuvers around the web via hypertext, in which a word, phrase, or icon in a document is linked by hypertext coding embedded in the document to some other point in the document or to some other document entirely.

Information has sometimes been defined as a step in the process of converting data to knowledge. In this scheme, "data" are seen as the accumulation of unrefined facts or results. Cleaning up the data and organizing it changes it into "information," something that conveys a message. Refining the information further, into intelligence, transforms it into "knowledge." Still, information is a relative term, since in this scheme one person's information is obviously another person's data.

However the word is defined, the chemist is in the thick of it. Never before has the chemist had so great an ability to generate so much information so quickly. Never before has the chemist had such a vast pool of information so readily available on the desktop. Never before has the chemist had so extensive an ability to manipulate and manage the information.

And it is only beginning. The revolution represented by these new levels of capability in chemistry has yet to reach into all areas of the chemical community with equal intensity. Various parts of the community are at this point just feeling their way along, trying to decide what is economically and technologically doable.

Perhaps for most members of the chemical community caught up in the transformation, it is an exhilarating time, full of technological empowerment and opportunity. But for many, the change can be a painful one, requiring new behaviors and attitudes. For those whose jobs have been displaced by information technology, the experience can be a wrenching one.

Regardless, ideas abound and information-focused developments are tumbling onto the chemical scene at an increasingly brisk pace. Those developments are widely divergent in their nature.

For the chemical researcher, they include, for example, new literature-searching capabilities and new ways of managing data and databases. New electronic tools are affecting the way that chemistry is done and bolstering change in the way research is conducted.

For the process engineer, the developments include new design capabilities and ease of use for process modeling and simulation. They strengthen the already considerable attraction those tools have for use in integrating information flow in the corporation.

For chemical company business units, the developments include new approaches to sales, marketing, and distribution, as well as the coordination of legal support. And information technology is playing a big role in the reengineering of corporations toward horizontal organization. The technology is essential for global operation.

Although this issue of C&EN does not survey the impact of the information revolution on educational endeavors as such, higher education does constitute another realm of chemical activity experiencing the repercussions of the revolution. The academic community has arguably been out front over the years in a number of areas - use of the Internet for e-mail and file transfer, for example. But it, too, is astir with the many possibilities now being made feasible by information technology.

Campuses are extensively networked for students and faculty. Numerous chemistry departments, many of them with aid from commercial software developers, have installed molecular modeling and computational chemistry laboratories. Likewise, chemical engineering departments have instituted process modeling and simulation labs. Chemistry departments at many schools are experimenting with multimedia approaches to chemical education.

Moreover, chemistry departments everywhere are getting on World Wide Web. Home pages for the departments are sprouting throughout the network, some more useful than others, but there nevertheless.

In other activity, the American Chemical Society is sporting a new home page on the web, with sections for many of its divisions and activities available or under development.

One of the latest ACS activities on the web is the introduction of two formats for electronic advertising. For the first half of 1995, they are being offered to select advertisers in Chemical & Engineering News and Today's Chemist at Work. They will be available to all advertisers in these magazines later in the year and to advertisers in the 1996 edition of the ACS's Chemcyclopedia.

One service, the Advertised Product Information Network, places color ads including graphics on the Internet using WWW software. These can include sound, video, or hypertext links to the advertisers' own web pages. In the future, readers will be able to enter their names and addresses to receive additional information or to actually place an order for a product.

The other service, an Electronic Reader Service, allows readers to request, via e-mail, additional information for products and services displayed in printed ads in C&EN and Today's Chemist at Work. At the bottom of the print ads, readers are asked to send e-mail to adinfo@acs.org mentioning a code listed in the ad of interest. They will then receive up to three pages of additional textual information on the product.

All of these activities are just highlights from a chemical world in a state of flux. It's a bracing and in some cases perplexing time for the chemical community. In the following pages, C&EN explores some of what's happening as that community moves into the information age.

To paraphrase Negroponte: Computing is not about computers anymore. It's about chemistry.


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