“Experimental but exact”: why I study Chemistry

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Throughout school, I had always felt certain that I would choose to study English Literature at university; however, after a stressful period of indecision, I changed last minute and applied for Chemistry. In 2017, I started studying Chemistry at Durham. I am now in the final year of my integrated Masters. 

The decision ultimately rested on a few factors, but what finally convinced me was the unified knowledge throughout Chemistry, though at that stage I had only a limited conception of what that might mean. I felt that the atom, despite having been presented to me in a simplified form, was remarkable: an understanding of it seemed to explain so much about the world. Just from knowing an atom’s electronic configuration, you could predict how it would react, which elements it shared properties with, or what its appearance might be. In my mind, the purpose of science was to uncover the forces that govern our existence and describe them, so that they might be applied to phenomena not yet understood. 

The purpose of science was to uncover the forces that govern our existance

To me, Chemistry seemed like an important and relevant venture: unlike the study of History and English, which at times felt like a futile pursuit of disparate facts, I imagined that chemical knowledge might be acquired in a ‘layering’ manner, with each bit of information learned adding directly upon the existing. This way, a cohesive overall understanding of the subject could be obtained. Also, it was appealing that Chemistry can provide one ‘correct’ answer, rather than a frustrating assortment of differing opinions.

After starting my degree, I realised that there were several inaccuracies in this view: there are, for example, many areas in which experimental evidence has proved inconclusive, or where the governing ‘rules’ fail to hold. It would be incorrect to claim that all chemical knowledge is truly ‘cohesive’ in this sense, as it is inevitable that there will be an exception to every trend. It also inevitable that, since Chemists are ultimately only able to determine what is most probable rather than what is absolutely ‘true’, certain scientific models explain might certain phenomena better than others, and so may be selected based predominately on convenience. 

I am constantly impressed by the ability of Chemistry to review itself

However, I am consistently impressed by the ability of Chemistry to review itself through experimentation: the exactness with which experimental conditions are reported ensures that methods are reproducible, while allowing researchers to build upon (and if necessary, correct) knowledge obtained by those before them. Scientific progress rarely resembles in practice the romanticised portrayal it is often given in literature or in films: it is, in reality, based on hard work and substantial data analysis, and perhaps more dependent on chance than on ‘genius’. Nevertheless, given the certainty of further discoveries in the future, there is a clear sensation of moving forward, and therefore of optimism; it is for this reason I find it so compelling.

Ultimately, Chemistry is one of countless techniques used to understand the world. Many might feel that the insight into emotion and beauty provided by English Literature lends the subject greater resonance than that which takes place in the uncompromising sterility of a lab. 

Chemistry’s reliance on evidence makes concepts more tangiable 

Personally, I feel that Chemistry’s overwhelming reliance on experimental evidence makes the concepts we learn about seem more tangible. Yet I have often reflected on the similarity in thought process between, for example, establishing the identity of a molecule from its NMR data, and writing an English essay: there is a comparable focus on a central concept while an argument is carefully constructed around it, eventually taking a more solid form as relevant facts are assembled. Perhaps science and humanities subjects are not so different after all.

Illustration: Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

One thought on ““Experimental but exact”: why I study Chemistry

  • Chemistry is racist & not a safe place for women of colour!

    Reply

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