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consultant editor at Nature and science writer

I may be wrong, but my suspicion is that you may not hear from a great many chemists - so maybe I could put in a word for them. Arguably, the most useful innovations in chemistry are methods of chemical analysis. I know that this sounds almost irredeemably dull, but I can’t help feeling that that is the way with truly useful innovations - unlike ‘great discoveries’, they tend to be things that become a part and parcel of daily life.

I am thinking in particular of crystallography, pioneered at the start of the twentieth century in X-rays by von Laue and the Braggs and now also using other probes such as electrons and neutrons. These techniques provide the most detailed atomic-scale pictures of what molecules and materials look like, and are vital for understanding the structure and thus the mode of function of biomolecules. X-ray crystallography was of course central to the elucidation of the structure and function of DNA. But there is also a raft of other analytical tools for probing molecular structure, especially nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and optical, electron and scanning-probe microscopies. Since the essence of the molecular sciences is understanding the shape, structure, constitution, location and dynamics of molecules, analytical tools of this kind are quite simply what makes the discipline possible as a modern science.