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ollypenrice

A question on chemistry...

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I've read Marcus Chown on atoms ('The Magic Furnace') and would now like to read up on chemistry, a subject which entirely passed me by at school thanks to the abominable way it was taught. Could anyone recommend a starting point? I don't want to become a chemist but I'd like to know 'what chemistry is,' so to speak.

Olly

PS I have to say a word about Dr Ecott who is doubtless long past being offended since his vital signs were few even while he was teaching us 45 years ago. His lessons were pure dictation and he would repeat himself in such a manner that taking notes was impossible. Try writing sense with this dispirited old man saying, ' Sodium hydroxide, hydroxide, I-D-E IDE, hydroxIDE, hydroxIDE....' This would go on for an hour at a time. When discipline slipped (as it sometimes did...) he would bawl the last syllable of his dictation, whch might be anything: 'IDE,' for instance. We then craftily maoeuvred him into bawling his last syllable when the word was 'GAS,' whereupon we all raced out into the sports field and took cover.

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I did Chemistry O Level in the early 80's and was awarded an A, but still don't really feel that I have an intuitive grasp of even relatively basic stuff. I think I learnt more about atomic bonds and why elements react (or don't) with others from last Christmas's Royal Institution lectures than I did in five years of chemistry classes at school.

The most exciting thing I recall happening in any of my chemistry classes was during an experiment performed by the teacher that involved burning magnesium. The magnesium ribbon was kept in one of those big jars that those of us of a certain age will be familiar with from sweet shops. The teacher in question neglected to replace the lid on the jar before performing the experiment and by sheer chance a spark found its way inside, resulting in a large amount of magnesium suddenly bursting into flame, much of the building filling with thick smoke and the evacuation of all the pupils (and the evacuation of the teacher too, I shouldn't wonder).

I do also vaguely remember some experiment involving a mixture of sugar and cigarette ash (to obtain which the teacher smoked a cigarette during the class, naturally) and setting light to it, but that wasn't quite as impressive as accidentally setting off a load of magnesium :)

I am interested to see what people come up with by way of suggestions, anyhow. My son will soon be starting "proper" chemistry, so getting ahead of the game a little can't hurt.

James

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Thanks Julian. I'm not really in a position to do a course but would like a decent book to get me started. I like the historical approach to studying science, ideally. I don't intend to become a practitioner (since alchemy seems doomed to failure...) so it's the 'history of ideas' that intrigues me. I'm sure there'll be something out there but a bad choice would be annoying.

Olly

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My grandson, now 2yr chemistry at Southampton Uni, was told on arrival that school chemistry was effectively "wrong and we're here to ge it right !" Are there different 'truths'?

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My only connection with chemistry appears to happen after drink large amount of Beer, the next morning produces large amounts of methane......

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There are always different truths.

For instance they tend to teach you that "atoms like to have full outer shells" so that's why they make bonds, like NaCl so both atoms are "happy".

It's not the truth, why should the atoms be any happier! The more you study you find there are more and more exceptions to the rule, and really its juts a useful shortcut. I mean, try explaining XeF4 with this scheme :)

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... I don't want to become a chemist but I'd like to know 'what chemistry is,' so to speak.

Olly

What about this Olly, it's an online reference text for general chemistry, called "Chem1 Virtual Textbook".

It looks interesting, it seems to provide the sort of level you're looking for, and it's free! :smiley:

You can read it online or download the whole site as a zip file. It's approx 120MB.

Rob :smiley:

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Thanks Rob, that looks promising and just sufficiently intimidating.

Olly

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(Chemistry) A FINE subject thoughbut - Much more fun than Physics!

Time to revisit those school subjects (teachers) made unattractive. :D

Not the fault of Teachers tho'! For me, early (required) specialisation?

These days a "historian" or "linguist" etc. etc. All of them badly, but! :p

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(Chemistry) A FINE subject thoughbut - Much more fun than Physics!

Time to revisit those school subjects (teachers) made unattractive. :D

Not the fault of Teachers tho'! For me, early (required) specialisation?

These days a "historian" or "linguist" etc. etc. All of them badly, but! :p

If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly! Oscar on the button as usual...

Olly

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My chemistry teacher at school was an inspiration. He just had an air of authority with an underlying sense of humour and passion for the subject that was infectious. He had a length of 2x4" behind his desk with 'Mr. Duncombe's persuader' written on it :D It is entirely his fault that I do what I do for a living. (biochemist)

"Chemistry - a volatile history" is well worth it. I am not sure of there is a book, but the series was excelent http://www.infocobuild.com/books-and-films/science/chemistry-volatile-history.html

A book that I love, though not a broad look at chemistry is "H2O - a biography of water" by Philip Ball. Water is the most peculiar substance when you really think about it. We all know that heat rises and yet water freezes from the top down...bonkers :D

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If you're interested in history of Chemistry I think 'Mendeleyev's Dream' is a good read. It's about the formulation of periodic table of elements and it's structure based on the properites of elements. Mendeleyev left gaps in the periodic table for yet to be discovered elements as he realised the sequential nature of element properties and structure.

Any books on Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, would be interesting. He had his fingers in lots of pies too.

I agree with Rik, anybooks you can find on water will be an eye openers and thought provoking.

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My chemistry teacher was more entertaining. His party piece was to fill balloons with a mix of hydrogen and oxygen, and explode them. Another good one was to bubble hydrogen through a strong solution of washing up liquid and water, forming a three foot high column of self-supporting bubbles. Which could then - of course - be ignited.

In terms of principles of chemistry, I'm a bit vague, but chemicals have a tendency to form compounds with the lowest energy configuration. However, to get there you often have to supply a kick of energy to get the reaction started. To take a simple example, you can mix hydrogen atoms with oxygen molecules (O2) and they will not react. However, if you supply a match, some of the oxygen molecules break down and react with the hydrogen. This releases energy, as H2O is a more stable compound, and there is a runaway reaction (bang).

Catalysts are also important in chemistry. The catalysts themselves are (largely) unchanged by the reaction, but they provide a lower-cost energy path for the reaction to take place, possibly by forming an intermediate compound.

Thanks Julian. I'm not really in a position to do a course but would like a decent book to get me started. I like the historical approach to studying science, ideally. I don't intend to become a practitioner (since alchemy seems doomed to failure...) so it's the 'history of ideas' that intrigues me. I'm sure there'll be something out there but a bad choice would be annoying.

Olly

I also enjoy reading about the history of science, partly for the stories, partly for the science itself, but even more so to gauge the impact science has had on society and the way we think. I also find 19th century science far more comprehensible than the discoveries of the 20th century.

The Age of Wonders by Richard Holmes has a section of Humphry Davy, an early chemist and inventor of the safety lamp. I'll try and take a quick look at it over the next few days, to see if that might be suitable for you.

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Speaking as a chemist (turned spectroscopist, toxicologist and forensic scientist...), I would be tempted to decide on which branch of chemistry before you start reading up - it's a very broad subject. Branches are mainly physical, organic, inorganic, analytical, with overlap to other areas eg biochemistry, environmental chemistry etc etc. Depends on what turns you on.....

Chris

Edited by chiltonstar

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In (general) praise of Chemistry teachers! It was they (their subject) that MOST inspired me at school.

I also had a GREAT time during a vacation job for (long gone, now taken over) ICI Pharmaceuticals.

Consider Chemistry! Now that "everyone" is a Particle Physicist or an Evolutionary Biologist... :p

Aside (in light of above): Spectroscopy neatly weds Chemistry, Physics... Astronomy. :cool:

Of course the quintessence(?) of science is still Amateur Astronomy though. :D

Edited by Macavity

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Blimey, you all did better than I did for chemistry teachers. For me it was totally decontextualized. Here are some categries, here's how to write chemical equations. No thought to talk first about the nature of matter, about atoms, then molecules, no, just learn these symbols, learn the periodic table (even if you don't know what it is, why it is or what it refers to...)

And meanwhile Ecott babbling on and on in Altzheimerian confusion, '...in a tube, in a tube, T-U-B-E tube B-E, B-EEEE, tube, BE,- tube over a Bunsen, capital B Bunsen, B-U, B-U,

B-U-N, S-E-N, E-N, Bunsen...'

But, you know, I have a friend who did a chemistry degree without ever encountering the idea that the elements are forged mainly in the stars. There has to be something wrong with an education system that made that possible, no?

Many thanks for the ideas and encouragement.

Olly

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But, you know, I have a friend who did a chemistry degree without ever encountering the idea that the elements are forged mainly in the stars. There has to be something wrong with an education system that made that possible, no?

unfortunately Chemistry degrees are often shaped by the research interests of the lecturers. It shouldn't be that way but it is.

Luckily my Physical Chemistry lecturer was an avid astrochemist, have a look for 'Astrochemistry: From Astronomy to Astrobiology' by Andrew Shaw

He's a good bloke, I have a lot to thank him for. When exeter shut down the Chemistry department I couldn't move as I was a Biomedical Chemist but my heart was in the physcial side so a few of us got taught extra Physical Chemistry on the side even though it wasn't an included subject with the reorganisation. As he was prepared to teach it I got on the phd I wanted and subsequent career

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When exeter shut down the Chemistry department

Eh?! What?! This is Exeter University we're talking about? And they shut down an entire chemistry department? Did they need the extra space for Lady GaGa Studies or something?

That's just so deeply wrong. I'm really shocked.

James

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Eh?! What?! This is Exeter University we're talking about? And they shut down an entire chemistry department? Did they need the extra space for Lady GaGa Studies or something?

That's just so deeply wrong. I'm really shocked.

James

Yep, they still do my degree administered by the biosciences which was biological and medicinal chemistry however not straight chemistry.

When I signed up my degree was straight chemistry with stuff like molecular and cell biology. Now all the chemistry modules are more biorelated. They even stopped physcial chemistry for a bit hence Professor Shaw teaching us it on the sly :) It was extra to our degree modules.

Unfortunately it costs at least 10 grand a year to teach a Chemistry student. Lady Ga Ga courses are more profitable ;)

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But, you know, I have a friend who did a chemistry degree without ever encountering the idea that the elements are forged mainly in the stars. There has to be something wrong with an education system that made that possible, no?

Relatively recently? I don't know how long these things really take to get through from the initial publication to being accepted fact by people outside the field, but sometimes it feels like an entire generation has to pass before such ideas become common currency. If I recall correctly Hoyle et al. were working on nucleosynthesis in the late 50s early 60s, but even in the 70s and 80s I don't recall coming across the idea. Nowadays even my seven year old daughter is familiar with the concept, though I think the science may be a little beyond her just yet :)

I recall reading that it was only really towards the late 70s that plate tectonics became "properly" mainstream despite having been proposed many years earlier. I was quite surprised to find out that it was still debated so late on as I vaguely remember a teacher telling me about it at primary school in the early 70s, then looking at a globe thinking "Well, I can see how that might happen. Africa and South America would fit together quite neatly".

James

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There's a name for this effect which escapes me. Textbook publishers have a tendency to be conservative, in case the latest theories get overturned. It's cheaper to revise an existing textbook rather than commission a new one. Also, schools and universities replenish their stock periodically and tend to evolve their lesson plans rather than updating their curriculum completely, which adds even more lag. As a result, people are often taught theories which are somewhat out of date.

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My suggestion would be "The disappearing spoon" by Sam Kean. Not so much a book about chemistry but more of a bunch of stories about the elements of the periodic table.

Available as an audio book - so you can listen while doing other stuff.

cheers

gaj

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