Chemistry with Cultural Connections - ChemPRIME

Chemistry with Cultural Connections

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Chemistry has been definced as the science that is concerned with the composition, properties, and structure of matter and with the ways in which substances can change from one form to another. But this definition is too broad to be useful. Chemistry isn't the only science that deals with the composition and transformations of matter. Matter is also composed of minerals, which transform by geologic processes like erosion, of quarks which transform by annihilation, and of cells which transform by mitosis. These are normally considered the subject of Geology, physics, and biology, respectively. Chemists are unique because they understand or explain everything in terms of the properties of just over 100 kinds of atoms found in all matter, and the amazing variety of molecules that are created by forming and breaking bonds between atoms. So chemistry is defined by its approach, not its subject matter. Chemistry explains or understands any subject in terms of the properties of atoms and molecules.

Democritus, 460-370BC

Because its broad approach, chemistry provides a unique perspective that has a tremendous impact on our culture. Democritus (460 BC-370 BC)conceived of atoms as a way of dealing with fear of change; if there are underlying atoms with unchanging properties, our world may appear less chaotic. Epicurus 341 BCE – 270 BCE departed from the determinism of Democritus, claiming that free will results from a fundamental indeterminism in the motion of atoms. Epicurus' concept of an atom was used by Lucretius (94-49 BC)in his poem to free men of superstition and fear of death. If atoms always existed and always will, it is not capricious gods who determine our destiny, buy atoms with regular, predictable behaviour. Death is the state of atoms after life, which is not to be feared any more than the state of atoms before our birth (which frightens none of us). The fact that none of these are scientific atomic theories (they are not falsifiable, nor do they provide usful research programs) indicates how fascinating atomic theory is; the scientific atom penetrates our culture to an equal extent.

Lucretius and Epicurus forshadowed perhaps the most important and vexing question of our times concerns the nature of consciousness. We know that both natural and synthetic drugs affect our moods and even thoughts, and that we can use tools like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to trace physiological changes that correlate with thoughts. But it’s hard to accept that our thoughts and behavior may be determined by chemical laws. That would challenge what we think of as our very selves. What happens to moral responsibility, to free will, and to the omnipotence of a god if everything is determined by the properties of atoms and molecules? Will the scientist who discovers that all thought is determined by chemical laws claim that discovery as his own? It seems that “chemical properties”, properties explained in terms of how bonds between atoms or molecules are formed or broken, cannot include consciousness. But the shape of molecules may allow them to serve as neurotransmitters, where they bond to neurons with similar symmetry and allow the transmission of signals that may change our mood. So chemical properties seem to be part of the puzzle. Other chemicals like Oxytocin and vasopressin, have amazing effects on our memory of social relationships and ability to maintain them.


Exactly what we mean by a “chemical” needs to be explored. If chemistry explains things in terms of atomic or molecular properties, a chemical is something that is understood that way. A chemical is a pure substance, comprised of just one kind of molecule (or atom), whose behavior is understood in terms of the properties of that molecule. Laypeople who talk of “chemical free” natural foods, for example, are not necessarily at odds with chemists who claim “everything is made of chemicals”. When people speak of "chemical free" products, they usually mean that the material is found in nature and so was not designed for a particular purpose by manipulating its structure and properties. But molecules identical to those found in all of nature can be designed by chemists, and they are identical in all respects to natural ones. Chemists often say 'everything is a chemical" because it is possible to understand everything in terms of molecular properties. It is interesting when chemistry and culture cross in the arts. The music of Edgar Varese, like Ionization [2], and contemporary songs, like Sting’s Lithium Sunset [3] cannot be appreciated without adding the chemical dimension: quantization of electrons followed by ionization is conveyed by percussion and siren in Varese, and the preponderance of red in the lithium spectrum or flame test inspires Sting. We will explore these connections whenever possible.


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