Understanding Chemistry

When someone speaks of a person knowledgeable in chemistry, what might come to mind is a disheveled person in a long white stained lab coat, complete with pocket protector.  I hope that one day everyone will have a basic knowledge of chemistry, because a basic understanding of chemistry is important in living a safe and full life as an adult.  Knowing how different materials might react, or how they might mix together, can prevent dangerous circumstances.  Knowing the nature of stains or spills can help in cleaning them.  Another, lesser known invaluable part of chemistry is being able to set up math problems which can help in everyday life situations.  Knowing the basics of chemistry is very useful for an average person in many circumstances.

A practical application of chemistry in everyday life is in knowing what cleanser would be the best to clean any soiled item.  By knowing if the stain on a cloth or hand is organic, it can be treated with a soap specially designed for it.  For example, pine sap on the hands is one of the most annoying things to try to clean.  Even though ordinary soap should remove a small amount of organic material, it will not remove pine sap, which is organic.  The experienced chemistry student would know that since ordinary soap and water will not remove pine sap: it must be removed by rinsing in rubbing alcohol (also organic) then washing with soap and water (the alcohol breaks down the pine sap to allow the soap to wash it away).  The soiled item can be any object, cloth, furniture, a person.  The student of chemistry knows that ‘like dissolves like’ meaning that water-based stains will be dissolved by water-based cleansers, and organic-based stains will be dissolved by organic-based cleansers.  Garage mechanics, because it is their job, get grease and motor oil (both organic for both are derived from petroleum oil) on their hands and clothes.  The hand cleansers they use are specially made for the heavy-duty organic-based compounds with which they come in contact.  By thinking about the source of the stain or offending spill a person that is familiar with chemistry will be able to rid the cloth or body part with an appropriate cleanser.

Knowing the chemical nature of a particular substance, whether gas, liquid or solid, and knowing how they react will keep a person safe.  It will give a person wisdom and caution when two or more substances may need to be mixed together.  For example, a chemical compound containing the element chlorine may be used as a cleanser in the home.  A person who has had some chemistry would learn that chlorine likes to react with other elements that will give it an electron (chlorine is an ‘oxidizer’).  Another cleanser might contain ammonia which is a compound that readily gives up an electron (ammonia is a ‘reducer’). This person would have learned that to mix the chlorine-based cleanser with the cleanser that has ammonia in its compound is not a good idea.  Mixing the two cleansers will not help to make the dirty object any ‘cleaner’; the two cleansers will react in such a way as to produce the dangerous and poisonous chlorine gas (oxidizers react readily with reducers).  Another way that having knowledge of chemistry will keep one safe is to know how to react to a grease fire.  They would know that oil floats on top of water, and if the oil is on fire, throwing water on it will only cause it to spread (the burning oil will float on the large amount of water, flowing over a much larger area).  Only throwing a dry substance such as salt on the grease fire will put it out (suffocate it).  A basic knowledge of chemistry also includes learning the gas laws.  This is helpful, especially when packing perishable food for travel or picnic.  By knowing that cold air settles, one must pack the perishables on the bottom of the cooler and place the ice or ice packs on top.  The cold air will fall to the bottom of the container, keeping the perishable food cold and safe from spoilage.  Knowing how compounds react and their chemical nature will keep a person safe.

Another valuable skill learned in the study of chemistry is how to solve mathematical problems.  There are many times in life that one has a question that traditional math courses do not prepare a person.  Chemistry teaches how to set problems correctly so as to achieve the desired information.  Chemistry emphasizes that the student must use units and conversion factors when setting up the problem, so when all units are cancelled except the desired units, then it was set up correctly.  For example, to find out how many miles per gallon, the experienced chemistry student will know to write the number of miles in the numerator and the number of gallons in the denominator, and divide accordingly.  Similarly, the student would find the cost per ounce at the grocery store: the dollar amount in the numerator with the number of ounces in the denominator and divide accordingly.  Another example is in using recipes.  When the cook needs to manipulate a recipe (make it smaller, double it, or even quadruple it) to make sure the dish turns out correctly, he would have learned from chemistry to use units.  The chemistry student can even convert the 2 teaspoons in the original recipe to tablespoons or even cups for ease in measuring, and do it correctly by using the units.

Having a basic understanding of chemistry is important.  It gives an understanding that would help in keeping the student and his possessions clean, keep the student safe and well, and help in any mathematical problem the student may face.  If everyone had this basic knowledge, the stereotype of the ‘crazed chemist’ would be no more.