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The case for chemistry

As we look forward to Chemistry Week 2015, Peter Atkins explains why chemistry is at the heart of all science.

What is all around us, terrifies a lot of people, but adds enormously to the quality of life? Answer: chemistry. Almost everything that happens in the world, in transport, throughout agriculture and industry, to the flexing of a muscle and the framing of a thought involves chemical reactions in which one substance changes into another. Everything you touch, taste, or smell, be it natural or synthetic, has emerged from sequences of chemical reactions. Strip away chemistry and you strip away colour from fabrics and vegetation. Strip away the material products of chemistry and you return to the Stone Age (but even those stones were the result of chemical reactions). Strip away anaesthetics and you are left to grit your teeth.

Yet chemistry, despite all its positive contributions to life and, through medicine, the postponement of death, does not lie happily in the regard of many. Why is that? Like most problems, there are several contributions to the answer. Chemistry is an intricate subject, where the relative importance of influences has to be judged. There is perhaps less that is predictable in chemistry than there is in physics, and consequently more, dauntingly, to be learned. It may be that teachers, despite their best efforts, sometimes brought in to present an unfamiliar subject, lack the confidence that deep understanding gives, and transmit that discomfort to their pupils. Perhaps a syllabus is ill-conceived. Perhaps the elimination of practical demonstrations, regarded as too risky by the timidly or pragmatically wisely risk-adverse, no longer stimulate the interest that lies at the heart of commitment. Maybe the connection between a deep-seated concept and its myriad consequence in the observable world is not brought out, and interest withers on the vine. Perhaps the concepts that are the essential currency of chemistry–atom, molecule, energy, entropy–are perceived as too abstract for comfort.

Whatever the origin of distaste and fear, there are remedies. Chemistry is an intensely visual subject crying out for propagation by visualization. Computer graphics, now so extraordinarily powerful that it can conjure out of imagination the lives of dinosaurs and even dead actors, can convey with striking impact most of the central concepts of chemistry and its role in providing the infrastructure of physics and the elucidation of biology. Those who commission TV programmes should realise that if only they could overcome their prejudices, they have a rich seam of visual images that they could mine strikingly and almost endlessly.

Then there is also the stimulating intellectual pleasure of understanding that chemistry provides. A great advantage of studying (or just reading about) chemistry is that it furnishes insight that adds to the pleasure of superficial reaction. It is rather like music. A piece of music can be enjoyed at face value; but deeper enjoyment–when the mood takes you–can be achieved if you know the compositional structure. So it is with the everyday world. The world can be enjoyed at face value, but when the mood takes you the enjoyment can be deepened by knowing what is going on in the lives of its atoms. That deepened pleasure should be a part of our conveying attitudes to chemistry.

In a similar vein, as I have hinted at, chemistry lies at the heart of science and enables you to reach out for elucidation and understanding in different directions. For its explanations it draws from the deep well of physics, and through understanding chemistry you are led seamlessly into quantum theory and thermodynamics, and maybe even beyond. For its applications it is now so secure in its ability to conjure with complex matter that it elucidates the molecular mechanisms of organisms. Thus, through learning chemistry you are led seamlessly into molecular biology and all its amazing consequences.

There is much to be said for rooting out fear and distaste of chemistry and replacing it by the illumination it brings to the world, allied with a gratitude for all its artefacts. Next time you observe the autumnal changing of a leaf from green to gold, look at it with a chemist’s eye, and deepen your delight.

Featured image credit: Chemistry Lab Equipment, CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Rodrigo

    This piece manages to convey everything I think and feel about chemistry. Its as if a more articulate version of me wrote this. Now when people ask me why I like chemistry, instead of failing to express my thoughts, I will just point them to this.

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