Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What is Chemistry? A Preface to an as-yet unwritten Book.

Chemistry is the science of things that we can see and that we can control.

When I was young, I never gave chemistry a second thought. I loved the grand sweep of biological evolution, with its single unifying idea and its endless ramifications, every twig on life’s branch subjected to a neat exegesis by my idol, Stephen Jay Gould. I loved the vastness of space, the unimaginably gigantic and inhuman universe subjected to the breathless exposition of Carl Sagan. I was brought up in an atmosphere suffused with geology, and I cannot remember ever not knowing that I lived on a thin chunk of crust moving inexorably towards Asia. These, the descriptive sciences, the historical sciences, were where I lived. I wanted to know where I was; I wanted to know where I was going.


It is not enough to know. If you actually want to do something, all of these sciences have serious flaws. You cannot crash galaxies together to see what will happen. You cannot evolve your own species of toothed whale. You cannot smear an archipelago onto the Pacific coast of North America. You can only watch, and collect data, and hope for a ‘natural laboratory’ which will test whatever hypothesis you have developed. The essential bits of the historical sciences, the most interesting bits, are inaccessible to our tinkering.

As I grew older, I grew to lust after the secret and paradoxical wisdom of the physicists, the world of Schrödinger’s cat and Lorenz’s butterfly and the modest goal of the Theory of Everything. Here again, I was driven by the desire to know what was going on. Once upon a time physics was a science where you could do things.

But now, alas, they have mostly been done. Now you need obscene amounts of money to do experiments and whatever result you get can be explained by the theoreticians. Is that falsifiability?

Actually, I must be honest. I cannot discount physics. I am a failed physicist. Somewhere among the ordinary differential equations I got lost, and fell off the mathematical billycart. When I say that the great achievements of what we call ‘Modern Physics’ ended in the 1930s, and that since then it is chemistry and its biological metastases that have transformed the world, you must discount it as sour grapes. Likewise, when I proclaim: ‘physics has given we chemists our tools, and now its job is done.’ Sour grapes.

Essentially, chemistry drew me in because it let me play with liquid nitrogen and fire.

If you actually want to do something, chemistry is the only science worth considering. With physics, we can control things, but we can rarely see them or even imagine them. We can see the subjects of the historical sciences everywhere, but cannot control them. Chemistry is the science of things we can both see and control.

Chemistry is called by some of its practitioners the ‘Central Science’, a term that I have always found naff. It is the ‘Human-Sized Science’.

A few more facts about chemistry:

Chemists are allowed to:

(a) Appropriate any part of physics they like and call it ‘physical chemistry’

(b) Invade and subvert any ‘softer’ science they like and turn it into chemistry.

It is no coincidence that so many Deans, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Vice Chancellors and Prime Ministers (e.g., Margaret Thatcher) have been chemists. Those whose job it is to manipulate matter naturally want to manipulate it wherever they find it.


Jenny said...

...and acid, lets not forget acid. Acid is fun (and not even the hallucinogenic stuff). Acetic, nitric, sulphuric mmm acid.

Though I was impressed by the hallucinogenic drug lectures where the lecturer described the chemical structures and how other benign substances only required small chemical bond changes to result in these drugs.

It still boggles my mind how the vast majority of chemists are so law abiding and don't mess around with their controllable knowledge.

I also agree with the central science idea. The longer I work in science, the more I think "well, thats chemistry too" about the supposedly non-chemistry things I do.

Marco said...

I kind of remember a grade 12 Chemistry exam, where one of the students started twitching uncontrollably about half way through an exam. It was so bad the supervising teacher sent the student out early. I thought to myself either this person didn't study this subject and knew none of the answers or was a chemical genius destined for great things in that science. When the results were eventually announced, I believe it was the latter.

Chris Fellows said...

I wasn't sent out, I finished and left :P

Klaus Rohdel said...

I always hated chemistry: too fiddly, except for what was then called physiological chemistry. Biology is what counts (well, I did not want to use "central science"), but unfortunately much of it cannot be done without chemistry. All nonsense, of course, what really counts is quantum physics these days. Imagine the strange world of quantum physics: parallel universes etc. Perhaps we will find the ultimate answer here.