This I Believe

Derek - Richland, Washington
Entered on December 13, 2007
Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: science

Science is magic. The universe works in mysterious ways but for me science is helps me find patterns within our world. Things that appear to have nothing in common are sometimes amazingly similar. Graphite and diamonds are two very different objects; Graphite is black, sooty, smooth, and is easily damaged – just think of a wooden pencil. Diamond, on the other hand, is one of the hardest substances known. It can cut through rock; easily score glass and is completely see-through like pieces of glass.

When I started to look at the world through the lens of my chemical knowledge, the rules of atomic bonding and my understanding of the element that graphite and diamonds are constructed out of, allowed me to understand that they are not so different. Both comprised of carbon atoms. That which makes them different is their structure, how the atoms arrange themselves. I have held both these objects at the same time and having looked at them side by side, I could find no similarities between them. I would have never believed that they had anything in common until I started to dive into the world of chemistry. When I was just beginning see the world as a chemist it all seemed to make sense. Chemistry is able to explain what man-made objects, the earth, and life are made of. By describing which elements an object is made up of and how each atom is bonded to the other the properties of that object can be deduced. For example the structure of graphite on the molecular level consists of sheets of carbon. These sheets are loosely bonded to each other. Since these sheets are weakly bonded, I can reason that the substance would be brittle and flakey. On the other hand in the structure of diamond the carbons are bond tetrahedraly (a pyramid with a three a sided base). This would also yield a brittle substance but it would be much harder then graphite.

Even if I was unable to explain anything else that was going on around me, I took great comfort in knowing that there was a tiny part of the world that I was explainable. However it wasn’t until I tried to share my knowledge with someone who had no knowledge of the subject that I began to see my discipline as something as a magic show performance. A friend of mine asked me “what is pH?” So without a second thought I began to explain that liquid water is not just H2O but that it also contains free floating H+ and OH- ions in the solution. This happens because there is a chance that H2O will decompose into those components, and there is also a chance that H+ and OH- ions will rejoin to make water and pH is the logarithmic concentration of H+ in a solution. She just sat and stared and when I was done she told me jokingly that I was crazy. This caused me to think about what I said from her prospective and I had to agree with her.

This was the first time I sat down and started to look at what I know about chemistry. From my friends prospective the things I have talked about make me appear as if I am a magician. Unimaginably minuscule things that interact to make up all we see and touch; I might as well have been telling her that fairies where doing it. But by knowing what objects are made up of I am able to explain and sometimes predict the properties of objects that I have never previously heard of. Water for example is made up of two hydrogens and one oxygen, it sounds simple and from that formula I am able to predict that it would have a low melting point and that it is polar. The fact that it is polar means that it has a strong attraction to other polar objects, such as itself.

As I took more advanced chemistry classes and got closer to the limit of current human understanding of how atoms interact with each other at the molecular level. I learned that most of what I had been taught was mostly conventions and simplifications. When I was studying crystal structures it is possible to know the distance between atoms but, which atoms are bonding to which in the molecule it is entirely convention, it’s made up. The concrete world that I took refuge in now seems to have taken on a degree of uncertainty. So many things that I have learned in one case are able to be applied elsewhere in chemistry. This happens so frequently that it seems that it was planed out before hand and science it just trying to put together the plan in a way that can be understood.