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Chemistry is conceptual and continuous June 9, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Careers.
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In my opinion, two things are in short supply among chemists that are key to doing good research, a conceptual understanding of how chemistry works and an attitude that chemistry is a continuum explored by chemists. The first means that the specifics of chemistry, the reactions, the patterns of behavior, all of the equations are only details, not the core understandings. The second is that definitions of fields and techniques are imposed from the human side, defining bits of the realm of chemistry. In reality these overlap since chemistry itself has no boundary lines.

Chemists tend to think along the detailed lines, think of things like equilibria in terms of equations, rather than the concepts such as Le Chatelier’s principle. This gives them an operating system, a mindset, that is useful in doing the daily grind , but fails in understanding the out-of-the-ordinary or the new.

For example, equilibrium behavior is transitory on a molecular basis. No molecule is in one state or another, in one form or another. The equilibrium is not a static condition. Every molecule interchanges between the states or forms. If you could do the Maxwell’s demon thing, you’d see that no specific molecule is tagged as liquid or gaseous in a liquid-vapor phase equilibrium. That specific molecule moves and in human-scale time may be at the interface, in the vapor, and in the liquid.

The equilibrium diagram only defines a proportionality, an average behavior. The molecules are not one or the other. They are both, just at different proportional times.

The chemistry continuum is there. A problem in our terms is just unexplored area. The true nature of the chemistry is not organic or physical or analytical. It is just there undiscovered. We use certain tools to explore, what we call the knowledge within each discipline. A good explorer just knows more and uses more to discover. Boundaries only limit the tools being used, the thinking being applied.

This is reflected in the fields of the researchers. A new NMR technique may be studied and utilized by analytical, organic, physical, and other kinds of chemists. What makes it work is not defined by who does the work.

The bottonline is understand the ideas in chemistry, not just the equations anf formula. Do not limit your work or ideas. There are no boundaries. Keep expanding your box.

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