Chemistry and the World Around Us
AS A child, when you watched your mother mix and bake a cake, did you realize that she was a “chemist”? You ate the cake for its good taste. But did you know that your body was a highly complex chemical laboratory, digesting the cake and building it into body tissues for you?
Now that you are grown, you may not have made chemistry your career, but you know that nothing could live if it were not for chemical processes. Probably you appreciate also that many things we use today would be missing if some men had not taken up chemistry as a vocation.
Chemists, of course, do not make the laws by which chemicals react. They can only study, experiment and use tools such as microscopes to discover and understand these laws, and to know how to apply them to achieve certain results.
Some of the products of chemists’ research that have had deep influences on our world are explosives, fuels, plastics, paper, steel, glass, detergents, medicines and other things too numerous to mention. These things have influenced our work, our eating, our building, the clothing we wear, our modes of travel—just about everything in our way of life.
An Ancient Science
We do not know to what extent the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Hebrews understood chemistry. The Bible’s historical record does reveal, however, that even before these early civilizations, yes, before the global flood some 4,300 years ago, men had knowledge of metallurgy, which involves chemistry. (Gen. 4:22) And later on, Job, who lived before Israel became a nation, said: “Iron itself is taken from the very dust and from stone copper is being poured out.” (Job 28:2) Israel’s King Solomon had copper casting done. (1 Ki. 7:46, 47) Also, other industries requiring some knowledge of chemistry existed, such as wine making and the manufacture of dyes and inks. Drugs were used, and embalming was practiced.
The Atomic Theory
In modern history, however, extremely rapid progress has been made in chemistry because of the development of the atomic theory concerning the structure of matter (actually postulated by the ancient Greeks). In fact, chemists have had a large share in the development of the atomic theory.
This theory teaches that atoms are made up basically of three particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. Combinations of these particles in varying numbers make up the elements. An element is a substance that cannot be separated into simpler substances by ordinary chemical means. So, for ordinary chemistry, elements are the building blocks. The next unit in order is the molecule, which may consist of one or more atoms. Then come compounds, made up of the union of two or more elements.
There are ninety-two elements that are commonly found in the natural state. Hydrogen, a gas, is the lightest of these. Platinum is one of the heaviest. Some others have been made artificially, so that the total number of known elements today is more than one hundred. The most abundant element in earth’s crust and in its waters is oxygen, essential to both animal and plant life. Oxygen also constitutes about one fifth of the air by volume.
Most elements have an affinity or attraction for others. Very few are considered inert, or practically inactive. There is virtually an endless number of arrangements and combinations, making up every kind of material that exists. The most complex molecules are found in living things. Massive molecules of various proteins, consisting of many hundreds of atoms in a very complicated arrangement, have recently been given much attention by scientists. Massive as these are, for molecules, they can be “seen” only by means of an electron microscope.
Laws of Chemistry Work for Man’s Welfare
Even though chemical combinations beyond number have been discovered, it is found that there is great stability in the arrangement. Tables of atomic numbers and atomic weights compiled from observation of the elements are therefore very reliable and useful to the chemist. Some of the laws controlling chemical reactions are of the highest complexity, yet, when understood, they are seen to govern all matter with a most marvelous orderliness.
The elements sometimes bond together to produce compounds that have properties much different from the elements alone. An example of such a compound is table salt, composed of chlorine and sodium, both poisonous substances. Water, a liquid made up of gases, two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, displays characteristics that in several ways affect our life and comfort. Water has the unusual characteristic of having its molecules more tightly packed in its liquid state than when frozen. Ice, therefore, floats. Otherwise, as it settled to the bottom of lakes they would become permanently frozen.
We can also be happy that water has a higher heat capacity than any other common liquid. This has much to do with the moderation of climate near large bodies of water. Also, no other liquid can equal water as a solvent.
Oxygen is a very active element, combining readily with many other elements. This makes it an ideal purifier of air and water, quickly oxidizing and rendering harmless certain poisonous substances.
Does Chemistry Have the Answer for Man’s Problems?
Because of the important part chemistry plays in man’s world, it is a most enjoyable study as well as a source of things convenient and useful to mankind. Chemists have learned much, but actually they have only “scratched the surface” of this enormous field of endeavor. Chemists still do not know exactly how a blade of grass grows, nor fully understand photosynthesis, by which plants manufacture food for all animal life. No chemist has yet reached the heights of accomplishment of one cell of the human body, which, it is said, can carry on from one to two thousand different chemical reactions simultaneously.
The things that chemistry has developed have had good potential, but lack of knowledge of their ultimate effect, and abuse in using them, have caused many problems. Plastics, detergents, drugs and advances in chemical means of destruction have helped to bring mankind to a time of crisis. Certainly science as represented in chemistry, just as in its many other branches, has demonstrated man’s inability to create a world of peace, health, life and security.