Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Why Should You Study Chemistry?

Why should you study chemistry?  That is a question that I hear quite frequently since I work in a chemistry department at a university.  That is not surprising you might say.  But the reasons why every person should have a grasp of chemistry is surprising.  The surprising aspect for people comes when I explain the wide range of areas touched by chemistry research.  This explanation usually causes their eyes practically jump out of their sockets.  Alright, not really, but their interest is peaked.  In the paragraphs below, I take a little tour of the wide range of areas covered/touched by chemistry (which is everything).  Specifically, I use a textbook that I have been reading to illustrate the range of areas in life which chemistry contributes to.

Why Chemistry?

As I suggested in my last blog post related to chemistry, people often think that chemists "think differently."  Yes, typically, there are people who tend to solve and approach problems in the world by using an analytical skill set.  Whereas, there are other people who tend to approach problem solving from an abstract sense.  We need both to engage in science.  In fact, we need everyone to try to study science in order to figure out if they are interested.  Why?  Because, chemistry and science touches every aspect of our lives.  Do you believe me?

If you are a skeptic about the fact that chemistry touches every aspect of our lives on a daily basis, then read on to the paragraphs below.  If you are interested in science, read on below.  If you are bored with this post, close this webpage please -- save yourself from being further bored.  The other day, I was reading the introductory pages (again) of the book titled "General Chemistry" by the authors: Dr. Donald A. McQuarrie, Dr. Peter A. Rock, and Dr. Ethan B. Gallogly.

At this point, you are probably wondering why I am reading a textbook after I have graduated with a Ph.D.?

One of the many fascinations of science (for me) is the ability to communicate science very succinctly.  I am working on a daily basis to improve my skill.  Technology has progressed greatly over the past few decades and the graphics and images that are contained in general chemistry textbooks today is mind boggling.  Add that to the explanation of a distinguished author such as Dr. Donald McQuarrie and you have a very pleasurable read.

Of course, the process of returning to read a textbook takes time.  There are mental battles to be fought while reading any textbook -- or any book for that matter.  Each of us are human and distinct.  Therefore, the commonality that authors of chemistry textbooks have is to teach the fundamentals of chemistry.  That is not always completely separable from infusing opinions or explanations that are define us personally.  Therefore, reading a wide range of chemistry and science books is critical to engaging with the science community at large.  Why?

Different explanations, examples used in textbooks, materials highlighted or skipped is important.   By reading books, one gets a sense of how relevant each section in chemistry is by seeing the illustrations, examples, and explanations.  Without further ado, why don't we find out the answer to the following question: Why Should You Study Chemistry?

Here is an excerpt from "General Chemistry 4th Edition" by Prof. Donald McQuarrie below:

Chemistry is the study of the properties of substances and how they react with one another.  Chemical substances and chemical reactions pervade all aspects of the world around us.  The new substances formed in reactions have properties different from those of the substances that reacted with one another, properties that chemists can predict and put to use.  Hundreds of materials that we use everyday, directly and indirectly, are products of chemical research (Figure 1.1).

The examples of useful products of chemical reactions are limitless.  The development of fertilizers, one of the major focuses of the chemical industry, has profoundly affected agricultural production.  Equally important is the pharmaceutical industry.  Who among us has not taken an antibiotic to cure an infection or used a drug to alleviate the pain associated with dental work, an accident, or surgery?  Modern medicine, which rests firmly upon chemistry, has increased our life expectancy by about 18 years since 1920's.  It is hard to believe that, little over a century ago, many people died from simple infections. 

Perhaps the chemical products most familiar to us are plastics.  About 50% of industrial chemists are involved with the development and production of plastics.  The United States alone produces over 50 million metric tons (110 billion pounds) of plastics a year, some 5 billion kilograms (11 billion pounds) of which are synthetic fibers used in bed sheets, clothing, backpacks, shoes, and other woven materials.  This corresponds to about 160kg (350 lb) of plastics and 16 kg (35 lb) of synthetic fibers per person living in the United States per year.  Names such as nylon, polyethylene, Formica, Saran, Teflon, Hollofil, Gore-Tex, polyester, Nalgene, PVC, and silicone are familiar to us in our homes, our clothing, and the activities of our daily life.  Chemistry also underlies the products that make our daily life possible--computer chips, paper, fuels, cement, liquid, crystal displays, detergents, magnetic storage media, refrigerants, batteries, scents, flavorings, preservatives, paint, ceramics, solar cells, and cosmetics, to name only a few.  In addition, metals such as steel, lightweight alloys of titanium  and aluminum, and materials made from carbon fivers make possible modern ships, automobiles,a aircraft, and satellites.

Chemistry is also needed for a study and understanding of our environment.  Unfortunately, a great many people today have a fear of chemicals, owing in part to the legacy of various pesticides such as DDT, chemical contamination of waterways, and air pollution.  However, an understanding of these problems and their solutions also comes from the study of the chemistry involved.  Biodegradable packing materials, hydrogen fuel cells, recyclable carpeting, and non-ozone-depleting refrigerants are just some of the new environmentally friendly "green" substances being developed by today's chemists.
It is remarkable that all chemicals are built up from only about 100 different basic units, called atoms.  Atomic theory pictures substances as atoms, or groups of atoms, joined together into units called molecules and ions.  You will start by exploring atomic theory, then go onto study chemical bonding and chemical reactions, and then learn to do calculations involving chemical reactions.  You will learn to make predictions about what reactions take place, under what conditions they take place, and how quickly they take place; what substances are produced in these reactions; and what the structure, properties, and behavior of these substances will be.  You will learn the chemistry behind many of the materials and processes we have already mentioned.  We are confident that you will  find your study of chemistry both interesting and enjoyable.

The many reasons contained in the above excerpt could keep you thinking about chemistry for quite a while.  Simply thinking critically about the role of chemistry in each of the areas listed would require a large amount of mental space.  I will let you think about this for a while.  On a parallel thought, I would like to highlight an excerpt out of the above to illustrate the importance of scientific research.  Additionally, these excerpts could add to my previous posts regarding the importance of funding science, and contributing to science indirectly by engaging in citizen science.

I really like the above excerpt in whole.  Although, certain parts stood out more than others for me.  One in particular was the following:

Chemistry is also needed for a study and understanding of our environment.  Unfortunately, a great many people today have a fear of chemicals, owing in part to the legacy of various pesticides such as DDT, chemical contamination of waterways, and air pollution.  However, an understanding of these problems and their solutions also comes from the study of the chemistry involved.

This illustrates the need for everyone to at least be exposed to chemistry.  At the same time, typical exposure times (high school, college, etc.) might not be the correct time to force the subject on people.  Therefore, each of us should try to understand our environment.  During that process, each of us find the level of technical understanding at which we are comfortable with.  Sometimes without knowing any previous information about a subject, a person will find that their interests and "self-guided" research (online, in libraries) has exceeded the requirement for students studying the subject (as a major in college for instance) in college or professionally.

Furthermore, in the process of understanding the problems and possible solutions, more might appear.  Is this a bad thing?  Not at all -- unless you are a business "research and design" team working on a deadline.  What is great about the discovery of new problems and solutions during the process of looking deeply into a research problem is that a tremendous amount of advancement is made.  People do not typically regard this as true.

More often than not, students and professional researchers will "huff and puff" around the laboratory in frustration with this new found "barrier" toward progress of moving forward in mind.  When in fact, they might have discovered an unknown obstacle for the field at large.  In fact, many scientists at that time might be thinking of the same impediment holding up their progress.  Instead of beating yourself up, try to find the utility in that result.

That Is Chemistry Research?

People are constantly amazed when they read the above excerpt from "General Chemistry" and typically respond with a comment like ... "That is chemistry research? ... Wow, I had no idea?"  All the while I am waiting to ask the question: "What did you think was chemistry related research?"  A variety of answers follow and too many to comment on here.

Here is a video that caught my eye that deals with my response question.  The  title of the video is "What Chemists Do - Research Specialists, Abrasive Systems Division, 3M" and is definitely worth watching (less than 4 minutes long).

Did you consider this field to be chemistry research?  The ability to produce a valuable and durable grinding wheel is difficult.  As mentioned in the video, the researchers are coming at the problem from the standpoint of producing a product that has a very predictable degradation rate.  That means that once the machinist or operator puts the grinding wheel to use, the product will grind for a long period of time before becoming "dull."  Sandpaper is only useful if the "grinding action" is prolonged in order to get the job done -- sand that cabinet or finish the wood on that project in the garage.

This approach is much different than looking at the problem from the standpoint of the operator -- the consumer standpoint.  As highlighted in the video, the research does not consider if the grinding wheel vibrates excessively.  Although, if the operator has to rest (for an unusually long period of time) or sustains a long term injury, the product has not helped advance the field.

If the product injures the consumer, then the research behind the product needs to include the consumer!

Large corporations have enough capital (cash reserves) to do large scale testing to ensure the quality of their product right?  Or our Federally funded Regulatory Agencies should be able to inspect the ingredients inside the product to ensure a high quality and safe product for the consumer -- right?

An article from the website "Environmental Defense Fund" titled "Senator Markey Asks: What If People Could Buy Food They Know Is Free Of Secret Ingredients?" suggest that might not be the case with our food supply.  Here is an excerpt from the article illustrating the problem at hand:

What if these same consumers knew that chemicals added to their food had not been reviewed for safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? As the Natural Resources Defense Council made clear two years ago, 56 food additive makers chose to avoid FDA’s scrutiny by taking advantage of a loophole in the law for “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) substances. They purposely chose not to be transparent by keeping secret the safety evaluation conducted by their employees or consultants. These companies appear to make only a few of the estimated 1000 chemicals that FDA has not checked for safety or is aware they exist.

In February, we learned that 51% of consumers think that safety means not only that a product is free of harmful ingredients but that its labeling is clear and accurate. Forty-seven percent want clear information on ingredients and sourcing. With this in mind, it’s fair to assume that consumers also expect that all food chemicals are safe and known to the FDA. Many consumers would likely not buy products where the labeling failed to disclose that the food they serve their families contained ingredients the FDA has admitted it “cannot vouch for their safety".

There is a need for the regulatory agencies to hire more chemists, biologists, physicists, medical doctors to find out solutions to these problems.  At least go through and test all of the chemicals that the public feel are "safe" or assume that the regulatory agencies have checked.  This issue will not be solved tomorrow.  The point is that the range of chemical research is vast.  There is a large need for people in the science fields and those closely related to them.

Furthermore, as consumers, we should be demanding that large corporations offer up a greater amount of the toxicology data regarding ingredients that are used in their products.  Sourcing of the ingredients in a given product should be a commonplace, not just inside a court room battle where the shield of "proprietary blend" stands between us and safety.  Chemists can provide answers along with other areas of science to the problem.  Of course, money needs to be flowing to solve this problem, along with others listed above.  Money and understanding are the two greatest barriers against progress.

As voters, we should be able to direct money toward projects we deem important.  This requires each of us to be "informed" about the matter at hand -- which includes the science behind the problem.


Where do we go from here?  As you can see, chemistry touches every aspect of our lives.  From the listing and the video along with the excerpt from the "Environment Defense Fund," some areas touch our daily lives more than others.  The need for an informed public is tremendous.  The problem cannot be overstated.

At the same time, reading the above excerpts and watching the video should invoke a sense of fascination with chemistry.  If not chemistry, science is amazing and is composed up of a wide range of fields.  The problems that need to be solved are vast.  Which problem are you going to tackle?  Do you have a solution to any listed above?  If so, tell me in the comments below.  Has this article inspired you to read about science?  If so, tell me in the comments below.

Regardless, if you have a renewed interest or have grown a new interest after reading this article, I would be super happy.  Science is great.  I do not have to convince you of this fact.  Science attracts those interested.  Until next time, have a great day.

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