Thursday, April 18, 2013

Chemical Vision

If I were to start a blog about writing, I would make sure that every single post that I wrote was free of spelling errors, punctuation problems, and awkward or incorrect grammar.  If I am writing about writing—I better be able to demonstrate to the world that I can write.  Split infinitives and dangling participles are abhorrent to those that read good writing.

If most people look at the two molecules at the top of this blog post, they do not see anything other than two rather similar structures rendered to be pretty and shiny, blue and yellow (and red, in the case of the second molecule.)  Someone who knows chemistry, would look at the pretty shiny molecule on the left and say, “Hmm. Something is funky here, that does not look quite right.” Or maybe a bit more forcefully, “Whoever put together that drawing does not understand chemistry.”  

The molecule on the left is gibberish.  It is spelled wrong.  It simply does not exist.  (Maybe it could exist if the gold atoms were assumed to be oxygen and the hydrogen atoms that should be attached to the gold oxygen atoms were implied, but that is stretching it.)

The molecule on the right makes perfect sense:  four bonds to carbon, three bonds to nitrogen, two bonds to oxygen, and one bond to hydrogen and the angles between the bonds have the correct measures.  In fact, the coolest thing is that someone who knows chemistry automatically sees those atoms (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen) in those positions, without being told what they are. In fact, there are chemists out there that would look at that molecule and think of coffee.  (The molecule is caffeine.)

I have been teaching chemistry for twenty years.  It is a truly marvelous thing when my students start to “see” molecules and structures as a chemist would.  In my organic chemistry class, we call this magical moment the epiphany, the “AHA!” moment when all the reactions, mechanisms, electrons, and arrows seem to dance in an organized way.  

Organic chemistry then becomes a set of puzzles instead of a bunch of note cards, because my students have learned a new way to see. 


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