When I began my premedical studies at the University of Washington, I was honestly determined to avoid chemistry as long as possible. All premed students must pass through the gates of general and organic chemistry. These are challenging subjects, especially for someone such as myself. I wanted to “warm up” to being in school again by taking biology. But I could not, and wstarted with general chemistry.
This course covers the basics of chemistry, like the composition of atoms, their interactions with other atoms, properties of different phases, thermodynamics, lab skills. It’s conceptual yet quantitative. I attempted chemistry years ago, and it was a terrible horrible no good very bad class. I didn’t do well. I was tormented with a crippling self doubt about my academic abilities, especially in STEM subjects. As a young student, I turned my attention to anthropology and social subjects instead.
But I had an amazing experience this time. Perhaps I gained enough distance from hurtful academic experiences and negative messages. Maybe I just have more life experience to not care so much about the opinions of others. Whatever it is, this recent dive into academics has been liberating, not constricting. I learned so much about why our physical world behaves the way it does. And my medicine making skills leveled up from my lab training.
Here are some of my conceptual take-aways from this year.
Water is a very magical molecule
I’ve always had a reverence for water. Call it an elemental attraction. I’ve always lived by water and streams, and exalted water as a life-giving element. And that is also truth on a very chemical level.
Oxygen is a very reactive atom, and it forms a type of bond called hydrogen bonds with the hydrogen atoms. The molecule formed is a “bent” shape, with a negative charge at one end and a positive charge at the other. This is termed a “polar” molecule. These water molecules love to stick to one another - a positively charged end bonding to a negatively charged end - and this allows the water to stick together and flow. This is what makes capillary action possible. This is also responsible for the high heat capacity of water, or how much energy it can hold before you see a temperature increase. So it can absorb heat slowly and hold onto it for a long time. Water has an unusually high heat capacity, which makes it an excellent temperature regulator in bodies and ecosystems.
The polarity of the water molecule is what makes it an incredible solvent - the negative end can solubize the positive end of another molecule, and vice versa.
Life we know is built on a scaffolding of carbon floating in bags of water. There’s a reason that NASA’s search for life in the universe relies on discovering water.
Elizabeth Gilbert recently wrote:
Years ago, when I was going through a really hard time, a friend of mine who was a naturalist gave me some beautiful advice about how to best take care of myself.
He told me, “When an animal in the wild has been injured, it has only two strategies for how to heal itself: It can rest, or it can go to the water. Right now, try to do as much of both as possible.”
And then go to the water.
Drink the water. Submerge yourself in the water. Touch the water. Look at the water.
Then go back to sleep.
Repeat as necessary, until healing occurs.
Sometimes I forget these two magical principals — how to rest, and how to go to the water. Then I get overwhelmed by life’s challenges, and I trick myself into believing that I need a much more complicated cure than your average wounded animal. And sometimes I do need a more complicated cure, I guess.
But not usually.
Usually sleep and water will do the trick.
It always reminds me of that Isak Dinesen quote: “The cure for everything is salt water: tears, sweat, or the sea."
This morning — after a good night’s sleep — I went to the water. Here’s a photo I took this morning of my feet dipping into my old friend the Atlantic Ocean. She has never let me down yet, and she didn’t let me down this morning, either.
(That said, when the ocean isn’t available, a long hot bath will work. Or a cold shower. Or standing naked under the garden sprinkler, which has been known to change the energy of a day, as well! As a final resort: Just drink 8 ounces of the stuff...whatever it takes! Get thee to water, people.)
Just rest, and go to the water.
It’s all gonna be alright.
That’s what the water always tells me, anyhow. And I believe in the water.
Attractions and repulsions are fundamental forces
It all comes down to the basic charges in the atom- positive protons in the nucleus, negatively- charged electrons whizzing around it. All bonding between atoms is a dance between attraction to the nucleus and repulsion by other orbiting electrons. Forces between molecules are governed by this polarity.
Particles seek freedom
A lot of chemical behavior is governed by entropy. We think of entropy as the “tendency towards disorder”. This is somewhat of a misconception- entropy articulates the desire for particles to seek more freedom and range of motion. For example, when I am stuck in traffic on my commute, I definitely seek more freedom and range of motion. We pursue freedom, on a macro- and microscopic level.
##A system’s total energy is potential plus kinetic energy
We tend to characterize people as “high energy” and “low energy”. But total energy is the sum of what’s in motion and what’s potential.
Patterns are marvelous, and we’re still figuring it all out
The best science teachers and educators acknowledge the ever-present mystery of the universe. We don’t know everything, and we never will. Science as a method of inquiry can shine lights on things, and we try to piece together an understanding of how our world works.
If you haven’t studied chemistry: try it! The topics are extraordinary, and the lab training is incredibly fun. There are also a few great books on the subject, including: