Friday, May 8, 2009


So, the end of semester is here, and summer looms at me with its tasty treats of indolence and self-education. With that, I'm looking back over the past semester, and trying to think of the most important things I learned. While actually comparing knowledge in terms of importance is, IMO, somewhat meaningless, it's good to think back about what you learned, and answering this question is an excellent catalyst for that type of intellectual probing. It's a toss-up between my physics course, and my organic course. In my physics course chemical theory suddenly clicked. Working problems starting from the basic SI units helped me understand what I was talking about when I was talking about the energy in a system, or in understanding the derivation of the gas laws. Still, while theory is important to understand, and this helped clarify chemical theory for me, I have an even more difficult time in connecting theory to experience -- in lab I often feel like I'm just pouring two liquids together, and shit happens, while in a lecture exam, some Grignard reagent attacks a ketone which is then protonated in a second step by a dilute acid. It's a world of imaginary particles and rationalized diagrams, where the lab is a world of color changing liquids. I have to actively think about theory after an experience to connect the two together, so because of that, I think the most important discovery I made was a personal fascination with crystals.

In organic chemistry, in most labs, we would combine liquids to form crystals. Place a liquid with some sort of chemical dissolved in it contained within a beaker into a water-ice bath, and observe. Initially, pure liquid. Then, slowly, small specks of a solid begin to form, barely noticeable. Without poking or prodding, the specks grow larger, clumping together, forming uniform shapes, even though they form independently of each other. These uniform shapes depend on the exact compound being created, but indeed, they are uniform. Look at common table salt -- each cube looks, more or less, as if they're a uniform shape. The same thing would happen in lab, only in different shapes, and it would happen by virtue of being surrounded by a cold source.

One day while recrystalizing a certain product, I made the connection to atoms. Small particles slowly clumping together in a uniform shape -- similar to crystals. Essentially, watching crystals form gave me an experiential understanding of atoms and compounds. It was the closest I could get, with the naked eye, to seeing atoms and compounds interacting. Now, the naked eye type of experience isn't necessary in understanding a given scientific concept, but I think it helped in my lab skills and in my understanding of an experiment. Suddenly, liquids weren't turning brown, but simple sugars were reacting with copper ion in Benedict's Reagent, Double bonds were attacking bromine, and esters were being cleaved by basic solutions to form soap. I felt more confident in using the framework of theoretical knowledge in order to understand an experimental situation. I saw the atoms reacting with one another, forming new compounds, and solidifying in energetically favorable positions. I watched crystals grow, and beheld the beauty and simplicity in the atomic theory of matter.

It's a sublime moment for me when theory is understood in experiental and experimental terms, and I sit back watching nature and feel like I actually understand what's going on. All the work involved in understanding the material -- my retraction from having as much of a social life, neglection of my hobbies, interruption of a normal sleep schedule, as well as the actual intellectual labor -- suddenly becomes worthwhile.

And to think I came back to school just to get a better job than working in a warehouse; I never thought I'd love science this much. But, there you have it -- I love crystals. I think they're the coolest things ever, and the purification of compounds by recrystalization has become my favorite process in lab. It reminds me of Primo Levi's description of distillation -- there's a certain elegance to the application of theory, and observing that elegance in action will always fascinate me.

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