Central science or central service—a personal view

Detlef Günther

Received 18th March 2014 , Accepted 18th March 2014
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Detlef Günther

Detlef Günther is Professor for Trace Element and Micro Analysis in the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences at ETH Zurich. He served as chair of the Department from 2010 until 2012. From 2008 until 2012 he chaired the editorial board of JAAS. His research interests include instrument and method development in inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and laser ablation for element analysis and isotope ratio determinations, which includes close collaborations with research groups from geology, biology, and material sciences. .

Dear colleagues,

One of the great things about being an analytical chemist is that you are not restricted to only one challenge to meet, or one question to answer. Chemistry is often referred to as the ‘central’ science as it connects so many fields from physics, to life sciences, to applied sciences such as medicine, environmental science and engineering. Although it is not often presented as such, I am convinced that analytical chemistry is the ‘central science’ of chemistry because every study of matter (to take a basic definition of chemistry as the study of matter) requires a suitable analytical technique for its characterization.

The Goldschmidt Conference 2013, which took place in Florence (Italy), reminded me of this, as the session that P. Garofalo, A. Koleszar and myself had the privilege to organize, “Analytical Frontiers in High Spatially Resolved Analysis using Mass Spectrometric and related techniques”, illustrated clearly that geochemists depend on detailed information about the elemental composition or isotope ratios to understand and describe processes related to earth and space. The high attendance at the session during the oral presentations showed the tremendous interest in the latest analytical developments and a very intense exchange and lots of discussions also took place during the poster session. It was impressive to see how much geological applications drive and push precision and accuracy, and that most of the presentations evaluated these figures of merit very critically, which made me think about analytical sciences and more specifically about Atomic Spectroscopy.

The critical assessment of results and open discussion of unresolved challenges comes naturally in geological analysis, because an error of 20% in, e.g., geochronology could make the earth appear to be 5 billion years old, which is most unlikely from all we know by now. In other words, processes studied in geology follow certain logic or expectations, which almost immediately indicates how suitable an analytical technique is, or how much additional understanding of processes is required, which stimulates fundamental research. I should note too that as an analytical chemist it is nice to see that geochemists know the literature and methods published in analytical journals. They take advantage of published methods where applicable and are searching for new, or revisiting old, strategies to solve their specific defined problem or initiate the development of new instrumentation. This is a common strategy for an applied field of science, where analytical instruments are used to describe processes.

This poses a challenge for those of us in the analytical science community, one that I invite you to join me in meeting. We must recognize that our greatest achievements will come through taking an inclusive, collaborative approach, being open to the questions and problems that arise in other fields and at interdisciplinary boundaries, rather than in focusing inwardly and choosing a sample to measure because we believe that it will produce good results. Those of you that know me will know that as well as science, football plays a big part in my life, and football has taught me that truly great teams become more than the sum of their parts. One great footballer, even Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé is the most legendary Brazilian football player and he and his team won the world cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970 in a walkover victory against Italy 4:1) alone could not achieve success without his teammates. The same is true in science. We must not fall into the trap of looking for a problem to which our solution might be made to apply. To quote Abraham Maslow ‘I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.’1 To ensure the best future for our field experts in analytical techniques, we must work together with those with interesting analytical challenges, leading to discoveries that neither group could make alone. For this we need to develop strategies to analyze samples and not only measure them.

Often as scientists we are slow to look outside the world of science to see what we might learn that we can apply to our own field. To see the importance of collaboration and openness to challenge we can possibly learn some lessons from the world of commerce and business. The first lesson is that we must not be afraid to fail. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! and former Vice President at Google, said that it does not matter that 80% of Google's products will fail because people remember the 20% that succeed.2 The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and bear in mind what the economist Tim Harford in his book ‘Adapt’3 refers to as the ‘Palchinsky Principles’: ‘first, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.’

The second lesson is that we must be aware of developments outside our own community. Of course we also have to know the developments within our community extremely well to drive the field. But our biggest challenger is not only the person doing similar research to ours, it is the person doing something completely different that we have not even considered as competition. For example, the biggest competitor to our local music store was not the better one up the street; it was iTunes and music sharing sites such as Spotify. Similarly, the biggest challenge to postal services was not specialist couriers; it was email and nobody could envision that 20 years ago.

These examples may come from business, but the lessons apply equally for our community. An increasing number of laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) instruments are installed worldwide every year in geological and many other institutes. Today's geochemists know how to use the instruments supplied by the manufacturer, know a wide variety of optimization strategies and they are used to applying a wide variety of methods for their samples, which helps them to recognize method-specific problems. It's interesting that the manufacturers of these instruments say that they get more challenging or demanding questions and requests for improved instruments from geologists or scientists working in interdisciplinary fields than from analytical scientists and in most cases its not because the analytical chemists have better solutions.

We must be honest about our achievements and be open to challenge and change. Every piece of research we do expands the breadth of human knowledge but we must be truthful about our motivations and real achievements. Research into fundamental processes and instrumentation is extremely important, but not every example of ‘measuring somebody's sample’ should be presented as an exciting new method or be published. Just because it is possible to use a particular approach for a particular measurements does not mean that the results generated are the answer/solution to a ‘real-world’ problem. It might be that our methods have the potential for wider significance; many of the greatest innovations have come from discoveries made while attempting to solve a problem completely different from that where they have found their well-known application. For example, corkscrews for opening wine bottles are a variation of a ‘gun worme’, which was a tool for cleaning guns. However, you will need to see if there is a problem out there in need of your solution.

If we really want to address a current real-world problem, or to be really challenged in our fundamental research, then interdisciplinary collaboration is a necessity. There are many interesting and challenging problems where major input by analytical chemists could make the difference, but we have to search for these more actively. The good news is that collaboration is positive for everyone involved. A 2011 report from the Royal Society in the UK4 identifies several advantages of collaboration including the chance to ‘…work with the most outstanding scientists…, …breaking down complex tasks into manageable pieces…’. The other good news is that our analytical community is welcoming and open, so perfectly positioned to be attractive for interdisciplinary research, but we should not forget that collaboration is more than service. Many of us have come to analytical chemistry having started in other fields and we are good at thinking about how to engage others in our research, or show them how we can contribute to theirs. However, that is not enough since we have so many obvious analytical challenges right in front of us, e.g., matrix effects, sensitivity, spatial resolution, method development for statistical treatment of data, modeling of processes, and the list can be easily extended. That requires a lot of knowledge, work, is very challenging and more difficult than applying our instrumentation to “a sample”, but if we redirect our focus and start to study or solve them, this would bring our field further recognition.

I believe that the future could be bright, we have a lot of promising options ahead of us: refocusing our research towards fundamental processes, development of instrumentation, tools and methods, listening to the needs of other disciplines and specifically improving the capabilities of analytical techniques, admitting problems openly, sharing them and keeping in mind that “no method is a panacea” (H. Longerich).

However…we must not be complacent. Many analytical research laboratories are more and more focused to work on one or two techniques, parameter optimization, and/or applications. It seems that fewer and fewer fundamental analytical studies appear in the literature each year, which gives the impression that we can solve all analytical problems with our existing instrumentation. Sometimes it seems that analytical chemists talk more about the background of their application than about the analytical details selected and optimized for the measurement, while admitting or discussing analytical problems is almost absent. This overestimation of capabilities or simplification of our research by saying “this sample can be easily measured using…” has forced the opinion that elemental analysis or isotope ratio determinations are routine or a kind of service. Over time this has had a substantial effect on the constantly reduced funding or loss of faculty that we are facing more and more. The choice to change this is in our hands. Geologists and others would certainly appreciate the development of sensitive simultaneous multielement detection systems and if somebody provides a complete understanding of the processes leading to Pb/U fractionation in LA-ICP-MS and reports a strategy to reduce or circumvent it, they will make a very significant contribution to the analytical method as well as geology. I am convinced that many more examples could be given and a similar comparison could be made of the interdisciplinary boundaries with biology, medicine, materials science and many others…

I really enjoyed the Goldschmidt Conference and thank the organizers for the wonderful platform to exchange ideas, to start collaborations, to discuss problems. The conference inspired me to hope that you will join me striving to make our teams the strongest that we can and lose the fear to admit failures and learn from them. This way we will make our community an example of what can be achieved and show that analytical chemistry's rightful place is at the centre of the central science. Remember that an unexpected result measured should never be scary. It should rather challenge our curiosity! I hope you will enjoy reading the articles from the Goldschmidt Conference in Florence.


  1. A. H. Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance, Harper & Row, New York, 1966, p. 15 Search PubMed.
  2. T. Harford, Adapt, Hachette Digital, Little Brown Book Group, London, 2011, p. 210 Search PubMed.
  3. T. Harford, Adapt, Hachette Digital, Little Brown Book Group, London, 2011, p. 27 Search PubMed.
  4. Knowledge Networks Nations, Global Scientific Collaboration in the 21st Century, The Royal Society, 2011 Search PubMed.

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