Web 2.0 and Chemistry

March 12, 2007

Chemistry on the World Wide Web is picking up speed like a runaway train. A remarkable number of groups are devoting considerable time, effort, and money to a wide variety of chemical web applications.

Stu Borman, Chemical & Engineering News, September 16, 1996

Whatever happened to chemistry and the Web? Stu Borman's article is a wonderful read, if for no other reason than to illustrate what makes technology predictions so tricky. Borman cites these developments, among others, as evidence of the rise of chemistry on the Web circa 1996:

  • An AltaVista search for the word "chemistry" returned 400,000 documents. (Remember AltaVista? Google now lists over 115 million documents containing the word "chemistry").
  • Popular Web browsers such as Navigator 3.0 and Explorer 3.0 support Greek characters, an important characteristic of chemical information. (Support for chemistry in Web browsers has barely improved in the meantime.)
  • A Java browser for Chemical Markup Language (CML) was soon to be released. (CML is still in use and supported by many software packages, although it has not been widely adopted. For example, the builders of PubChem opted for a custom XML format over CML.)
  • Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML) could be used display molecules in three-dimensions. (This article gives a brief overview of the rise and fall of VRML.)
  • Chemscape Chime, a Navigator plugin that interprets chemical information, could be freely downloaded. (MDL has apparently since discontinued free distribution of Chime. The free as in beer plugin is rarely seen in use on the public Web.)
  • Chemically oriented Java applets such as "WebSketch" are proliferating. (Java has had a difficult time making it as a browser technology. Security has had little to do with it, though.)

Stu Borman's article serves as a clear reminder that chemistry on the Web is almost as awkward today as it was at the dawn of the Internet age. The problem isn't lack of content; it's the lack of robust, widely-adopted, open standards that take the peculiarities of chemical information into account, and the free software to support them. Coming to terms with past failures in this area is one way to increase the chances of future success.