Wednesday, August 14, 2013

6. The blurring of physical chemistry and chemical physics

In 1980, Mostafa El-Sayed took over the Journal of Physical Chemistry. Because of the mistakes of his early predecessors in confining the physical chemistry they published to thermodynamics, the Journal of Physical Chemistry had been regulated to a second tier status. Mostafa quickly turned this around by simply asking all his friends to submit articles to the Journal. It helped that he had a lot of smart friends, and that they were spread through the entirety of the interdisciplinary space between chemistry and physics. That is, physical chemistry as codified by the eponymous ACS journal was finally redefined to include all physics, not just thermodynamics. Mostafa's drive to resuscitate the Journal of Physical Chemistry was also helped by the fact that the Journal of Chemical Physics had also ignored a critical part of the field. In the latter's drive to be increasingly rigorous, there was little room for phenomenological papers in which nature was not fully understood. Putting this together over the 24 years that Mostafa was at the helm (which also included his move from UCLA to Georgia Tech!), he succeeded in raising the Journal of Physical Chemistry to the top tier status it enjoys today.

The road between chemistry and physics has two lanes. One of these heads from chemistry to physics. Call it physical chemistry. The other lane heads from physics to chemistry. Call it chemical physics. But the road is the same road. As such, there truly is little difference between the names. However, there is a subtle difference due to the fact that each is pointing in a different direction. Chemistry has historically been an empirical science over which principles are constructed. Physics has historically been driven by axiomatic principles that give rise to the nature that we see. In likewise fashion, the Journal of Physical Chemistry has always tended to publish a slightly greater portion of phenomenonolgical results, that in turn have practical implications in advancing the field. Meanwhile the Journal of Chemical Physics tends to publish a slightly greater proportion of theoretical results and precise measurements, that in turn have implications on advancing fundamental principles. But both are moving towards the middle. As such, even these subtle differences should soon be lost (if they haven't already).

A different journal run by the Royal Society of Chemistry replaced the Faraday Transactions and formalized the blurring between the two names by simply naming itself as Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP) in 1999. There is evidently plenty of room for us to publish our work. More importantly, the true meaning of physical chemistry and chemical physics is fundamentally the same and truly lies on a one-lane road between chemistry and physics.

(This is the sixth and last post in a series starting with the first one on interdisciplinary sciences.
Click here for the previous post.)

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