Outer space isn’t the only frontier curious humans are investigating. Chemical space is the conceptual territory inhabited by all possible compounds. It’s where scientists have found every known medicine and material, and it’s where we’ll find the next treatment for cancer and the next light-absorbing substance for solar cells.
But searching chemical space is far from trivial. For one thing, it might as well be infinite. An upper estimate says it contains 10180 compounds, more than twice the magnitude of the number of atoms in the universe. To put that figure in context, the CAS database—one of the world’s largest—currently contains about 108 known organic and inorganic substances, and scientists have synthesized only a fraction of those in the lab. (CAS is a division of the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN.) So we’ve barely seen past our own front doorstep into chemical space.