Chemistry - What is parachemistry? What does a parachemist do?

Solution 1:

I'll try to present the best I could find. The titles "para", "meta" and "ortho" were perhaps given by Hermann Kolbe (1818-1884) way back in the nineteenth century. For one thing, Kolbe had the reputation of being a well recognized teacher and a skilled and productive chemist. He is also well known today (partly) as the author of a critique of the foundation of stereo-chemistry, with was established by the Dutch chemist, Dr. J.H. vant Hoff. He had directed bitter remarks not only towards vant Hoff for his hypotheses (which was perhaps the boldest), but at nearly the entire realm of contemporary organic chemistry.


$\ldots$ Once he gave his amanuensis the empirical formulas for three novel compounds for which their discoverer had just assigned structural formulas. The man reported back in a half hour with several more candidate structures, some of which looked more probable to Kolbe. Kolbe concluded that structure theory is a dangerous toy, especially for inexperienced chemists, and that structures are often assigned "in one's sleep," with little or no empirical warrant. $\ldots$

Privately, Frankland "entirely dissent[ed]" from this judgment and Volhard also objected privately; he joined Frankland in expressing regret over the personal character of many of Kolbe's remarks. Kolbe's response was pretty straightforward. As he remarked he must criticize and contest the chemical ideas that he considered false and worthless, he would be happy if his views were contested. He later wrote to Varrentrapp that he would rather be considered sharp-tongued than cowardly.

The crusade

In Kolbe's third and fourth retrospects, those for 1873 and 1874, he went after his favorite example of structuralist excess: Kekulé's benzene theory. He absolved Kekulé himself of much of the blame, for he was convinced that Kekulé regarded the theory merely as an intriguing and useful hypothesis. However, most chemists by this time viewed the hexagon as "infallible dogma," as "the Pope is for Catholics." They were true fanatics, Kolbe wrote, and viewed him (Kolbe) as a rank beginner, of weak understanding. They were right, he thought, for he could not understand arguments built "in the air" or "on loose shifting sand."

The end of their sand castles was not distant. Kolbe continued,

The modern chemist, who knows exactly what a chemical compound looks like in its middle and its end, how the six carbon atoms of benzene are symmetrically linked together in a plane, who then further purports . . . to have a clear conception of the spatial arrangement of the atoms, of their ortho, meta, and para positions, who determines the positions of all of the atoms in the compound, has long since abandoned the solid ground of exact science; the scientist has become a metaphysician.

He then named true physicists as "orthophysicists" as opposed to "paraphysicists" who construct hypotheses on the basis of experimental work of others and "metaphysicists" who believed that they can dispense entirely with empirical evidence.

In his own view, he was an "orthochemist" and Kekulé was a "parachemist. But as the years went by, he increasingly believed that even the term "parachemist" was too kind; his opponents were "metachemists", to whom "chemical theories are as cheap as blackberries".


  1. Kolbe Versus the “Transcendental Chemists”: the Emergence of Classical Organic Chemistry, A. J. Rocke
  2. The Quiet Revolution Hermann Kolbe and the Science of Organic Chemistry, Alan J. Rocke
  3. Image and Reality: Kekulé, Kopp, and the Scientific Imagination, A.J. Rocke

Solution 2:

A parachemist, in this sense, is one who is working on issues that are related to, but not identical to classical chemistry.

Classical chemistry, as we know, involves the interactions of chemical elements, based on the properties of such elements.

Para-chemistry involves both the interaction of chemical elements, and other significant properties, such as in this case also their nuclear/radioactive properties, which may affect their chemical and physical interactions.

For example, regarding one use of the terms ortho/para chemistry see:… in which it states: " For each isomer, two equivalent H nuclei, of spin 1/2, couple to generate ortho (nuclear spin = 1) and para (nuclear spin = 0) species with spin statistical weights of 3 and 1, respectively. " as an example in which para chemistry is tied to the nuclear properties of the interaction.

Another example of para chemistry referring to a non-classical chemistry understanding: refers to the idea that deuterium can have 3 spin states, and thus the parachemist may need to understand such spin states, as well as the classical chemistry, in order to analyze a chemical reaction.

" D 3 + has three spin states i.e. ortho (I=1,2 and g I =16), para (I=0, g I =1) and meta (I=1,3 and g I =10). "

As another use of the term tied to its connection with properties other than purely chemistry concepts, this paper [‌​/… states:

"Para chemistry covers the manufacture of products for specific uses such as, for example, agro-chemical products (insecticides, herbicides, etc.), explosive products, maintenance products, painting products, etc."

Here, I believe from my talks with industrial chemists, that the term refers to the notion that for industrial chemists, non classical chemistry concepts such as price, availability, ease of use etc. all play an important role, and not solely the classical chemistry.

Papers also exist that reference biological toxicity as a factor considered in the para-chemistry of a chemical reaction.

In an analogous way, the term ortho-chemistry, as another example, may refer to both the interaction of chemical elements, and their spatial configuration and properties, which may, in turn, affect their chemical and physical interactions.

The term ortho-para-chemistry can refer to an understanding that involves three different types of properties -- the chemical properties of the elements, properties of their spatial configuration, and their nuclear properties.

Terms such as meta chemistry also exist, and, as with the term para-chemistry, the idea expressed is that concepts and properties that are important to an understanding and analysis of a chemical reaction or sample may involve other properties outside of chemistry, but that are highly important to such analysis and understanding.

Such properties may involve the nuclear or radioactive properties, the spatial properties, the toxicity or biological properties, or others, including industrially important properties, such as scarcity or technical difficulty.

Solution 3:

The word-forming element para- has many a meaning. Here it outlines change, or transformation. From the Online Etymology Dictionary,

para- "...beyond; altered; contrary..."

Parachemistry is a subfield of industrial chemistry. It is mainly concerned with chemical reactions, transformation of one chemical to the next.

parachimie [type of industrial chemistry], "Ensemble des industries dont l'activité est fondée sur la transformation des produits chimiques" (industries having to do with processing of chemicals) $-$ The Government of Canada’s terminology and linguistic data bank

Unfortunately, this definition is pretty vague and general; may I say it is akin to using the tag reaction for your questions :-). You will find parachemistry is most used in French-speaking countries. Dictionnaire Français specifies additionally

"Branche de l'industrie qui transforme les produits chimiques en biens directement utilisables par le consommateur." (A branch that deals with final processing of chemicals for consumers [including specific industries, not only mall shoppers $-$ personal guess].)

I advise against using this word.

Solution 4:

"Parachemist" isn't obviously a role in a sub-field of chemistry.

A search for parachemist or para-chemist doesn't bring up much, it's mostly Spanish text. But a search for "para-chemist" hanford yields three results (other than this Q&A) – one Facebook page and two obituaries for people who had the role of a para-chemist at the Hanford site. So this may have been a fairly specific role defined at the Hanford site, or by the operators.

I proposed in a comment that it might be an analogue of paramedic – someone trained for an emergency response at the facility.

Rodrigo De Azevedo also suggested paralegal as a similar analogue. Although I think both are plausible, there's no evidence I can find to underpin either suggestion.

Regardless, I don't believe that parachemist can be Kolbe's "imperfect theorist" referred to in Berry Holmes' enjoyable answer, as it's clearly a job title and not an insult.

Solution 5:

It is not an accepted sub-discipline and I'd guess that it is almost certainly a "corporate culture" specific term, if it's even actually ever used.

It would be a wild speculation to claim that the term is based on what Kolbe wrote in [when? 1850?].

My guess would be it means "near" or "similar to". The fact that the OP included it in the article is a sad indication of a clueless reporter. My best guess would be someone who has been a chemical technician but has been put in a role which normally requires a degree holding chemist (who knows whether that means a PhD, MS, BS, BA, or a 2-3 year technical degree) either as a supervisor, as some sort of inspector or in a QC role.