Imagine you’ve just discovered a great new chemical and you tell the world. Someone else now claims that she discovered it first. Whom would you go to, to decide the facts? You go to IUPAC.
The 1860 Conference
The 19th century was a time when there was a new chemical discovery almost every day. Sometimes, the same chemical would be found in labs in different countries, and get different names. For example, what was called phenol in Europe was called carbolic acid in England; the word alcohol may refer to a class of compounds or just ethyl alcohol. Is the chemical with symbol S spelt sulphur or sulfur? Because of this, it was decided that a committee of eminent chemists would help create some rules for giving chemicals their names.
The committee was headed by August Kekule, and called for a conference in 1860. They also decided to form a permanent association of chemists, where they could discuss all issues, not just names.
Names of chemicals are not decided like names of babies. They have to be based on the number of atoms in the molecule, their positions and what they do in chemical reactions.
Suppose you made a new chemical whose formula was Cl-C6H4-COOH. You have a chloro bit (Cl), a benzene bit (C6H4) and a carboxylic acid bit (COOH). So you pull out your Blue Book and get the names for the bits. Put them together to make chloro benzoic acid! Easy-peasy!
IUPAC does more than give names
Chemists look forward to the jumbo IUPAC General Assembly, which happens once in two years. That’s when the committees meet and the rules are agreed upon. The next General Assembly will be in 2011, in Puerto Rico. It will be a special meeting, as it marks 100 years of the Paris meeting. IUPAC has joined hands with UNESCO to celebrate 2011 as the “International Year of Chemistry”, with events all over the world.
IUPAC also puts together books that all chemists need as reference material, like lists of melting points, solubility of different things in water, standard methods for doing experiments and a lot more. Many of these books take a lot of hard work over many years.
Most chemists are often happy to tinker in their labs and come up with new stuff, knowing that IUPAC is there in the background, making life easy for them!