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What in the world isn't chemistry?

What do you think when you hear the word 'chemical'? I shudder to think. What is a chemical anyway? Well what isn't a chemical? Everything we see, feel, smell and taste has a chemical basis. It is rather funny to hear someone advertise 'chemically free food'. they must mean a vacuum-packed vacuum. There are only 83 naturally occurring stable elements to make up everything we know on earth and in space. Chemicals are good (wonder drugs, food and drink) and bad (carcinogins, too much food and drink). Actually too much of anything can be harmful. Chemicals that are harmful in small quantities are toxic and it is really the toxic chemical that we want to minimize. Toxic chemicals can occur naturally in poison ivy, mushrooms, volcanic gases but we worry more about the manmade problems. The world is not yet a toxic chemical wasteland. In fact considerable progress has been made in the identification and control of low levels of toxic compounds. It really comes down to choices. Spots on your apple? maybe, but worms in your cabbage?? Do we give up the car or pay to get the lead out? Do we need spray deodorants or can we get by with a stick? The problem is compounded by the fact that many toxic chemicals were not always considered toxic. Asbestos was once a preferred insultator and DDT was once considered a valuable pesticide. It is still considered that DDT helped save more lives than it harmed. Mercury poisoning? Doctors once prescribed mercurous chloride or calomel for heart patients. What does an individual do to cope? People need to learn more to enable them to make correct personal choices and to influence governments to make correct national choices. Take heart ! Chemists are creative! There is a growing chemical industry with the goal to develop methods to monitor and control problem chemicals. These companies intent to make lots of money! In fact we may have to be just as suspicious of those that say "trust me, we will protect you" as those that say "trust me, our plant will not polute".

Why is chemistry so difficult? The answer is simple. Chemists make it difficult. How did we do it? We invented a different language and another way of counting. We don't say sodium chloride we say NaC1'. We write in symbols like hieroglyphics which we defy students to learn. We count in moles because we are confident that no one has ever counted a mole of anything. Finally we wait until students are too old before we let them study chemistry. When are students the least curious about the world and its wonders (except the wonders of the opposite sex). Exactly! Grade eleven.

Of course you can add to this list the fact that those few elements can combine to form compounds in almost limitless numbers. More than 10,000 new compounds are created every year and most of these are organic compounds based on carbon. No one knows them all and that is why even chemists specialize: organic chemists, physical chemists, environmental chemists, biochemists, marine chemists geochemists and more to come.

Actually chemistry really makes sense and it's our job to make keep it sensible. The symbols provide a useful short-hand language that helps to condense vaste amounts of information. The task is to learn the language. It is very subtle language where NO[.sup.-][.sub.3] is nitrate but NO[.sup.-][.sub.2]is nitrite. And chemists are sloppy! When we say iodine, is it the atom I?, the molecule I[.sub.2]? (really di-iodine), or the ion I? (really iodide). We should say which but we don't always. Finally we consider the mole (abbreviated as mol and it does not mean molecule which has no abbreviation). It does have a value.

Chemists count in moles because in chemical reactions atoms react whole-wise, they do not split. For instance exactly two atoms of hydrogen combine with exactly one atom of oxygen to produce one molecule of water or H[.sub.2]O. The problem is the mass of every atom is different. Mass ratio are not simple numbers. Furthermore an individual atom is too small to weigh so we count them 6.02 x10[.sup.23] atoms at a time. This choice of Avagadro's number keeps the numerical value of the mass of one atom in atomic mass units the same as the numerical value of one mol of atoms in gram molar mass units. This relatively simple concept seems to cause more difficulty than any other. Practice seems to be the only solution. The language and the math of chemistry is toxic in large doses. It must be taught with care, coated with fun and relevance.

Well that's chemistry and October 14 to 20 is National Chemical Week. With good luck a new wonder drug or a pollution-free energy source will be announced. With bad luck there will be a major industrial spill or more claims of toxic weapons warfare. Try to remember it's all chemistry. Encourage your students to learn more about chemistry. They will need to make choices. We must try to direct our elected representatives to the right long-term choices. If this world is to remain livable we will have to learn and teach more chemistry. This is a good time to start. Remember chemistry is the gateway to science. Biologists, physicists, engineers, geologists, dentists and physicians all require chemistry. Even stockbrokers and bank managers would do better if they learned the language of chemistry. Sadly there is probably no hope for lawyers and politicians.

Challenge your students with a chemistry project:

Chemistry of cooking. Why did the cake rise?

Chemistry of matches. How do they work?

Chemistry of batteries. Why don't they last forever?

Chemistry of the environment.

Chemistry the problem or the solution?

Chemistry is Elementary. Can you find 10 uncombined elements in your home?

Good luck and try to keep your chemistry fun.
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Author:Murray, Brooker
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Article Type:column
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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