Having fun with chemistry takes an active imagination

It’s June and I haven’t even told you that 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry. How big is that? I mean, it’s international! Why isn’t this in the news?

I have to admit that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with chemistry. Maybe that’s because when I first took chemistry it was in the 1960s and I had a few distractions.

The Cold War was going on, nuclear war was one red button away, the Vietnam War was hot, the civil rights movement had become uncivil, and I had just met the prettiest girl. That’s when my chemistry teacher expected me to learn all about these things called atoms ... Now get this. No one had ever even seen an atom before. They are invisible. So atoms did not strike me as important at the time. I mean, I could see the girl.

The truth is, at the time I thought chemistry might be a Communist plot devised to distract young people from paying attention to the really important events going on in the world. And there is only so much room in one’s brain. Was I going to remember Avogadro’s number or how to play a Bm7b5 chord on the guitar?

It wasn’t until some years later, when the pretty girl actually consented to marry me, that I began to worry about how I was going to make a living for a family. By this time, I had decided that my career should not involve digging or too much sweat. I’d thought about writing a novel or playing in a band, but the pretty girl thought these things sounded a little iffy to count on if we were going to start a family. That’s when I decided to take another look at chemistry, and I decided that chemistry had its advantages. The labs are usually air conditioned, and there were occasional opportunities to explode things.

Some people think that science only involves learning a lot of facts and is, heretofore, kind of boring. But chemistry is a field of study made up entirely of imagined particles and events. How poetic is that? It is fantasy made real.

For example, no one has ever seen a hydrogen atom. Yet by observing the world, people (scientists are just people) imagined that there was one. Then they imagined that there were whole populations of other atoms that were all a little different from the rest. After many observations, still other people imagined that these particles, called atoms, reacted together in certain predictable ways, according to specific rules.

Next an even more amazing thing happened. Someone said, “You know, if all this is true, then certain other things should follow.” So they made predictions .... some of which came true. From the results, people made changes in the imagined world, which led to more predictions. It was all a little questionable and tentative, not unlike experiments in “spell casting” at Hogwarts.

Humans have become so successful at predicting and controlling this invisible world that we now teach classes in which we talk about the 100-plus atoms that we imagine, and the parts they are made of. (Yes, we even imagine an imaginary world made up of the imagined parts of the imagined atoms.) We teach people the rules, the rules work, and so we begin to think the rules must portray the real world in some way. Most of us forget that this whole field exists in our imagination.

Humans sometimes get confused about reality and imagination. If something fits in your hand it is real. If you cannot hold it in your hand, it is imaginary. This does not mean that imaginary things are unimportant. Consider love, freedom, and faith — all abstractions that are tremendously important. But the lines between real and imaginary get fuzzy, but tremendously important, somewhere around the field of chemistry.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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