The Art of Analysis, Reprised
“During human progress, every science is evolved out of its corresponding art,” wrote Herbert Spencer in 1861. So, is analytical chemistry truly as much an art form as a science?
Anne Francois Aubry |
In the career pages of the American Chemical Society, analytical chemistry is described as the “art and science of determining what matter is and how much of it exists”. Of the six disciplines of chemistry, it is the only one to be described with these words, the other five being defined as “the study of ” [a particular type of molecule or material]. “Art” can be perceived as a derogatory term in the context of science but it should not be. Art represents savoirfaire and experience – the clever ways learned over time in the practice of one’s craft. Art precedes science; and it is in attempting to explain experimental results that theories are being developed. Yet, this may be symptomatic of the image of analytical sciences in the scientific community at large.
I think the root of the problem is that analytical chemistry has gone from mostly solution chemistry to almost exclusively instrumental analysis. Many scientists in all fields now practice analytical chemistry. Some are so good at it that they become full-time analytical chemists. Instrumental analysis has made it possible for non-specialists to purchase and use the sophisticated analytical instruments of the modern analytical laboratory, leading to the impression that analytical chemistry is just an enabler of other sciences. If everyone practices analytical chemistry, what makes an analytical scientist? Just like a skilled craftsman produces a more perfect object than a neophyte, using the same tool, a trained analytical chemist is able to get more from their instrument – more sensitivity, or higher resolution, or better precision. The art and science of analysis is also about choosing the right technique to solve a particular problem – and how to combine techniques in new ways to achieve the desired result.
Many years ago, while working on a new formulation of a drug in development, we found that one excipient was eluting as a “blob” in the chromatographic impurity test, obliterating the drug peak and all impurities and degradation products. I will never forget the look of disbelief on the face of the formulator (who thought himself pretty knowledgeable in chromatography), when I showed him a clean chromatogram the following week; the excipient was nicely tucked out of the way and the impurity profile clearly visible. I had theorized what the root of the problem was and how to solve it (the science) and used a new chromatographic column that I thought would fix the problem (the art). And indeed it did.
This is but one simple example of what goes on every day in analytical laboratories around the world. Many great inventions have been made possible by an advance in the analytical sciences. One only has to remember the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, made evident by the picture of a “fuzzy X” on Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction image.
Further technical development allowed scientists, several decades later, to photograph DNA fibers directly using transmission electron microscopy (1). The value of analytical research is only fully realized once it has been applied to a real-life problem. Analytical chemists love these challenges that test the limits of their art, lead to new discoveries, and ultimately advance analytical and other sciences.
Anne Francoise Aubry is the 2014 president of the Eastern Analytical Symposium and Exposition in Somerset, NJ, USA. The 2014 symposium will be held on November 17-19. The theme: “The Art and Science of Analysis.” www.eas.org
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- F. Gentile et al., “Direct Imaging of DNA Fibers: The Visage of Double Helix”, Nano Lett., 12 (12), 6453–6458 (2012).