chemicals in flasks

Chemistry likes to call itself “the central science” because very little research, from astronomy to zoology, can be done without it. This year, Scientific American has chronicled this central role in many compelling stories.

Here is my list of 5 of the most interesting stories. Follow the links to check them out if you missed them the first time around. And if you think I missed some—a crazy thought, but it could happen—let me know in the comments below, or email me at jfischman@sciam.com.

1. THE CHEMISTRY NOBEL. A trio of microscope specialists won the 2014 prize in chemistry for inventing new methods for seeing inside a living cell, and following the chemical reactions that make that cell work. One of the winners, Eric Betzig, followed up just two weeks later by reporting on ways to make 3D high resolution movies of cells in action. And the original work of another winner, W. E. Moerner, was described in a 2009 Scientific American story.

2. NON-CHEMISTRY OF DEPRESSION. Two psychologists, Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilenfeld, took on the prevailing wisdom that depression was caused by a simple chemical imbalance. Depression is much more complicated than drug companies, selling anti-depressants, would have us believe, they argued, and has causes that are not addressed by these drugs.

3. SAVING ART. Ancient frescoes and classic paintings are being rescued from decay by innovative chemistry methods. Important modern art by Mark Rothko, defaced by graffiti, has also been cleaned up by chemists.

4. LIFE’S ORIGINS. Molecules from space may have seeded Earth and led to life on this planet. Researchers found the first evidence of complex branched molecules in a region 27,000 light years away, just the sort of molecules that lead to complex organic substances like amino acids.

5. CLIMATE CHANGE. The “global chimney,” a massive updraft of gases from the tropical Pacific, could transport enough chemicals into the atmosphere to affect climate and billions of people, and a research expedition began to probe this phenomenon for the first time.

The science may be central but it is not always drop-dead serious. This past year we also told you how chemists want to help you survive a zombie apocalypse, exactly what happens when you pee in a swimming pool (and why you shouldn’t), and the chemistry behind the many colors of Fourth of July fireworks.

Again, I want to hear your ideas about the most interesting chemistry stories of 2014. So please comment, or email me at jfischman@sciam.com