|Posted on February 22, 2013 at 3:45 PM|
Why I’m A Chemist
Recently I answered a series of questions from a child in Pittsburgh about why I’m a chemist. I found them insightful enough that I cleaned up my answers and decided to share them with the Web. Towards the end it segues into science in general.
1. How did you decide you wanted to be a chemist?
I had a really good chemistry teacher in Grade 11 and12. I knew I wanted to be a scientist in about Grade 9, but I only settled on chemistry after that class. Too many people get turned off science altogether by bad experiences in the lower grades, but I was fortunate.
2. What do you like about being a chemist?
Being able to understand the list of ingredients on foods and pharmaceutical products. A lot of people read the list and get scared away by the litany of unpronounceable gibberish at the bottom, whereas I know that calcium phosphate is actually closely related to the enamel on my teeth, or the sodium citrate in iced tea is there to act as a buffer in combination with the naturally occurring citric acid.
More broadly, I like being able to understand the world around me and know what's happening on the molecular level.
3. What is fun about being a chemist?
For my particular field of chemistry (inorganic - I make compounds using metals), watching the colour changes of the reaction. I recently did one that went from purple to a different shade of purple to a deep red. I've made green, orange and yellow compounds as well (still haven't gotten around to blue). I tell people I went in to chemistry to make stuff blow up, and I get to do that in the Chemistry Magic Show I do for Let’s Talk Science. However, stuff blowing up in the lab generally means you’ve done something horribly wrong.
When we make something, we can’t just throw the molecules under a microscope and look at them – they’re far too small. Instead, we have to use a series of indirect techniques, usually by subjecting the sample to different types of electromagnetic radiation (visible light, radio waves, infrared, sometimes X-rays) and looking at the squiggles. Ideally, the various squiggles should all tell us the same thing. There's something really satisfying about collecting data from a variety of sources and seeing them all agree. It’s a bit like playing detective: you have a bunch of clues and you need to make a coherent story out of them. It's nice when all the pieces fit together to give you an overall picture of what you've made. Scientific research is a highly frustrating endeavour, so when something goes right and everything fits together, it can be a huge morale booster.
4. What other sciences are you interested in?
I've been fascinated by space and astronomy since I was young, and a lot of the non-chemistry science courses I took when doing my B.Sc. were in Earth Sciences (geology, minerals, that sort of thing). Biology never really excited me, and I will admit to wimping out on the more math-intensive courses like Physics.
5. What is your favourite experiment in chemistry?
The one that works.
Seriously, though, my favourite one to teach is based on coffee cup calorimetry. You can do a reaction in an insulated container (the coffee cup), measure the temperature change and work out how much energy is produced. You can either do the reaction in two steps, or in one overall step, and the sum of the energies from the individual steps equals the energy from the overall step. It's quite elegant, the numbers usually work out correctly if you do it right, and it's all done with very basic materials.
6. What do you like about science?
Actually, this would come back to what I like about being a chemist. There's something very satisfying about knowing the way the world works, and being able to explain that to others. The scientific mind can't just passively accept that things are the way they are, it needs to know how things are doing what they do. It’s the difference between “Ow, an apple fell on my head” and “Ow, why did this apple fall on my head?” One uncritically accepts an event, the other needs to find out why. The thing about questions is that they can often lead to more questions,like “Can I make the apple not fall on my head?” and “Can I get more appleswithout waiting for them to fall?” Inquisitive minds generally end up making life better for those around them.
There's also something very thrilling about being the first person to discover something new, even if it's as simple as the 1,234,987th species of beetle or making a known chemical in a way that nobody's done it before. I myself have contributed something new to the sum total of human knowledge. It’s a tiny drop in a vast ocean, but it’s my contribution and nobody can take that away from me.
Honestly, I can’t fathom living in blissful ignorance, and I really get annoyed by people who decry my inquisitiveness as trying to destroy the beauty of imagination (Insane Clown Posse, I’m looking at you). Anyone who can look at the world and sum it up simply as “God did it, then end” is the one seriously lacking in imagination. Finding out why magnets work is generally a lot more exciting that simply sticking them to things. Expecting to be handed all the answers from a book is boring, and quite honestly lazy. Human history has been one of discovery and exploration. If we had all the answers today, what would we do tomorrow? For one thing, it would be a lot harder to get research funding.