Monday, December 17, 2012

I'm Starting to Like Chemistry... But Only a Bit

Sir Ernest Rutherford's most enduring quote is: "In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting."  This may appear bizarre given Rutherford's numerous contributions to the field of chemistry, including his discovery of the tiny nucleus that resides within every atom.  The statement, as I understand it, is less of an insult to chemistry, and more of a declaration of physics as the fundamental branch of science.  Physics lay atop the hierarchy, its laws governing all.  This does not mean that chemistry is useless; it merely asserts that molecular behaviour, for example, obeys the laws of physics (if not, the laws of physics are incorrect).

The usefulness of chemistry is that it conglomerates a lot of physics into one step.  For example, the occurrences during a chemical reaction involve work done by the electromagnetic force, but it is not necessary to analyze such forces in order to predict the outcome of such phenomena.  Making use of trends within the periodic table allows the physics to take place behind the scenes, and saves much time.  One can study the periodic table without regard to why the elements exist as they do (quantum mechanics) and how particular atoms come to be (nuclear physics).  Indeed, stamp collecting is a suitable analogy for the discovery of the elements; like anything else, it is exciting if you think it is.

Well, I have never cared for stamp collecting - I have a small collection of CDs, and that's about it.  Memorizing the periodic table is not of great interest to me.  I suppose it is my disdain for memorization that deterred me from health sciences in the first place.  I ended up in mechanical engineering, which is about as far from memorizing anything as one can get in a technical field.  Just as long as I remember that 'F' equals 'M' 'A' I can pretty well solve anything that I need to.  I have spent the passed few years teaching various physics courses - subject matter that fascinates me to no end.  When I was cornered into teaching chemistry courses at the start of this semester, I was not too pleased about it.  Now, with the semester coming to a close, I have decided that I do not hate the study of chemistry all that much.

In these introductory chemistry courses, we discuss atomic composition, the periodic table, ways in which atoms bond to form molecules, ways in which molecules react to form new ones, and the units chemists use to keep track of such things, like moles.  When I step back and consider this content, it consists primarily of classification and accounting - man-made schemes intended to keep science 'organized' and form the language with which scientists may converse.  It is sensible that those new to science absorb this information early on even though, on its own, it in no way hints at the richness that lay embedded beneath.

I think such courses can be fun, but they can also be misleading if not handled properly.  I think it is essential that students be aware that this framework and terminology was made by man with the intent to study that which was not: the laws of science.  When we study these laws, we enter what can only be described as divine territory.  It is a profound privilege to be able to study the behaviour of the universe in a tangible way.  Centuries ago, man was not so fortunate as today in this regard.  The fact that we can now summarize the intricacies of most any phenomenon that we witness by considering a few laws speaks to our progress as a species.

I think it is fair to define chemistry as "applied and conglomerated physics"; such a definition in no way cheapens what chemistry is.  As an engineer, I like the idea of summarizing a considerable amount of physics into a single predictable process - it is only sensible.  It would be inefficient to break down such processes into physics laws each time we wish to address them.

And, within the periodic table, there is most certainly beauty to behold: the individual building blocks of matter, organized in a logical way.  The process of filling in this table many decades ago amounts to a cosmic scavenger hunt pursued by way of intuition.  That all of the observable universe, including us, is composed of just these one hundred or so components in various arrangements is just astonishing.

I suppose I would have to conclude that the study of chemistry, though fascinating, will never be my thing.  I derive far more pleasure assessing new problems through direct application of the fundamental laws; this is what mechanical engineering often amounts to.  Put otherwise, I would prefer to write a novel than to study language.

My parting words to my chemistry students are these... I hope you have absorbed the key terminology and framework introduced through our lectures and gained insight into the scientific method through our experiments.  If so, you are now armed to, in the words of Morpheus, see how deep this rabbit hole goes.  


Chelsea said...

Although chemistry isn't your first choice as a subject to study or to teach, it should be noted that you teach it very well! You are someone that actually enjoys teaching, and your students can see that. You light up our minds with fun facts about the world, making us see that chemistry isn't just about reading through our course material but that it's also about what's happening around us. Thank you for inspiring us!

The Engineer said...

Thanks for the kind comments Chelsea. Given that the grades were already up at the time of your posting, I'll assume they are genuine ;)

It would be hard to keep up this enthusiasm if not for the many bright and engaged students. Our small class started out very shy but became an interested and motivated group for the most part.

All the best.