Future Scientists Need It

There is, of course, no mystery at all why some of you have decided to take a course in chemistry: you plan to become scientists. Those of you in this category have a natural interest in science as a whole–and perhaps even a special interest in chemistry. But regardless of the particular science which interests you most at this time, you already know enough about science to be fully aware that chemistry–like physics–is one of the basic and fundamental sciences, and that whether you plan to be a chemist or a physicist, a biologist or geologist, a physician or a science teacher, a photographer or a radio technician, a firm knowledge of chemistry is needed. In short, those ‘of you who fit the title “future scientist” know why it is important to take chemistry: it has “built in” interest for you and it is vital to your future plans.

In addition to those who have enrolled in chemistry because
of vocational interest in science, there are others of you who are taking it just because you have heard that it is an interesting and exciting course. You may have heard that in chemistry there are many exciting demonstrations and laboratory experiments–and there are. Chemistry has appeal for those persons who are just naturally curious, curious about all sorts of things, including those to which chemistry can best provide answers. Thus you may want to take chemistry because you are intrigued by the prospect of performing distillations, titrations, the analysis of substances and other laboratory procedures, and because you wonder what happens when wood burns, how oil is refined, what the composition is of minerals, alloys, foods, paints, etc. In other words, you may not plan to become a scientist, but you are naturally interested in chemistry anyway-­it does not have to be “sold” to you.

*[These notes were written by James Rutherford and distributed to students in an experimental high school chemistry course during the school year 1955­-56. The textbook was used very little and the students had to rely on supplemental documents written by me on the way to becoming a new textbook (but I then gave priority to the new physics course I was developing at the same time, and did not complete the text). None of the chemistry material has survived except this introduction to the course. A  mimeographed copy was scanned into Word on 6/9/2005.]

It is Practical!

But let’s be completely honest: many of you are taking chemistry in spite of the fact that you do not plan to become scientists and, further, do not even feel you have any real interest in chemistry! It is usually stated that you elected chemistry for some “practical” reason. This means that more than likely your decision to do so involved at least a little advice and persuasion by your counselor and parents. If this is true-­and it is in a good many cases– the advice to study chemistry probably was based on factors such as:

(1) It satisfies your science graduation requirement in part or in full. (This is the casual of six-of-one-half-of-the­-other approach: “You have to take a science course anyway, so it might as well be chemistry!”)

(2) It is required for admission to some universities, highly recommended by others. (The play-it-safe approach: “The best bet is to take chemistry, then you’ll be sure to get into any college you decide upon.”)
(3) It is a prerequisite to many other courses and for many majors in college. (The lesser-of-two-evils approach: “If you don’t take chemistry now you may have to take it in college–and it’s a lot tougher there than in high school!”)

(4) It will help you with your college chemistry. (The be­-prepared or practice-makes-perfect approach: “College chemistry is just like that in high school only a little more advanced–so take it now and then college chemistry will be much easier.”)

Now do not misunderstand: it is not being suggested that your counselors or parents are misguiding you. Far from it! Their advice is sound, and the “reasons” they forward for it are good as far as they go. But there is more to it than just that, and so let us now go a little deeper and look for reasons behind the “reasons.” Why do high school and college faculties establish requirements calling for a study of chemistry? Why is it prerequisite to so many other courses? In a word, what is there about chemistry that earns it this wide approval? What is its deeper value? The most common answer, if not the strongest, is that the things of chemistry are beyond question an important ingredient in the modern world. A great multitude of products, especially the new “synthetics”, are “invented” and developed by chemistry. These products include everything from insecticides (e.g., O.O.T.) and wood killers (e.g., 2,4-D) to drugs (e.g., aureomycin) and fibers (e.g., nylon). Throughout the day you use hundreds of items which are directly or indirectly the “things” of chemistry. These items originate not only from the output of the recognized chemical industry itself, but also from most of


so-called basic industry; the degree to which industries such as steel and petroleum rely upon chemistry is considerable. With these facts in mind, it is only logical that if one would like to know more about the things of today’s world, a knowledge of chemistry would seem to be called for.
Chemistry Has Developed Some of the World’s Great Ideas
However, as good a reason as that may be for studying, there
are two others which are even more compelling. First, chemistry has developed not only industries and products, but also ideas, ideas big and little, ideas lasting and passing. Some of these ideas–alternately called concepts–are among the greatest that man has ever conceived. Ideas, for example, on what the process of burning “really” is, or, as another example, on the invisible structure of matter, may seem almost commonplace or obvious today; in reality they are concepts ranking in magnificence with the great cathedrals of Europe or the accepted masterpieces of art and music and literature.

If this seems to you to be a gross exaggeration–or perhaps
a case of enthusiasm gone wild–to compare the atomic theory of matter, say, to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, to the Declaration of Independence, or to Rigoletto, perhaps it is because there is a physical component of the latter ideas(and they are essentially ideas) which make them impressive even when they are not “thought about” or understood. Nevertheless, for the very reason that they are ideas, understanding the history, purpose, and effect of a great structure or document or work of art greatly enhances their magnificence.

On the other hand, an idea of chemistry usually does not
have a physical structure which obviously expresses it. But however that may be, you will perhaps only become convinced that the ideas of an Antoine Lavoisier are of the same order of greatness as those of a Thomas Jefferson, a Joseph Priestly of a Ludwig von Beethoven, a Mendeleef of a Goya, if and when you come to have a real grasp of the ideas themselves. Chemistry is not equipped to help you master the ideas of Jefferson. Beethoven or Goya; it is prepared to do so for those of Lavoisier, Priestly and Mendeleef. This, surely, is a convincing reason for studying chemistry! And it should be every bit as convincing to the student who does not plan to become a scientist as to the one who does.

Studying Chemistry Can Lead to an Understanding of the Nature of Science

The other compelling reason for taking chemistry is that by studying it you can learn a great deal about science. Notice, not about a science, but about a science–science as a social and


philosophical activity. In today’s world “science” is in the center of things: It is roundly condemned by some people who blame all of the major world problems on it; it is recklessly praised–almost adored–by others who look to it (or to scientists) to solve all of those problems; it is misunderstood by most. Yet there is nothing more important than that people, than that you should “understand” science. To understand science is not only to comprehend its great ideas, but it is also to know what science tries to do and how it tries to do it, to recognize the kinds of questions it asks and the kinds of answers it gives, and to be aware of its strengths and its limitations.

The study of chemistry is well suited to this larger task.
As the development of some of the major concepts of chemistry is traced, example after example is met of one or another of the tactics of science. Further, as study of chemistry proceeds from this standpoint, the grand strategy of science becomes more and more clear. Chemistry is worth studying by one and all, therefore, not just for the sake of its stock of great ideas, but even more so for the light it throws on the nature of science.

Once Again, Why Study Chemistry?
An answer can now be given to the question heading this section. Chemistry should be studied because it has special value for some of you and because it has important significance for all of you. Thus it is worth taking because—
(l) for some (a) science is to be a career, and (b) chem­istry is naturally interesting to many irrespective of their vocational interest;
(2)for all (a) an understanding of the things of today’s world requires a knowledge of chemistry, (b) chemistry has a stock of great ideas which should be–along with the great ideas from other fields–part of the equipment of every educated person, and (c) it helps one with the essential task of understanding the nature of modern science.

Chemistry Is Often Confused with Its Products and Applications
Whatever his reasons for taking chemistry, about the first
thing the beginning student must wonder about is, just what in the world is chemistry? But of course, he is not entirely in the dark about it, having some ideas about the nature of chemistry, hazy though they may be. (It is not unusual to hear students claim that chemistry is the science which studies chemicals! What is wrong with such a definition?) For example, the beginner realizes that chemistry has something to do with matter–but then so do physics and biology. Beyond that he is aware that the


modern chemical industry has developed and now produces marvelous “miracle” materials, such as the vast array of synthetic fabrics and plastics, nylon, Saran, Orlon and Dacron being examples. He probably knows that the chemist was a partner in deriving the “wonder” drugs like penicillin, aureomycin and the rest. Indeed the phrase “Better Things for Better Living–Through Chemistry” is not only well known to most Americans, it is for them the very essence, the full meaning of what chemistry is.

But these and the other such notions about chemistry though not entirely “wrong”, are as a matter of fact quite incomplete: they suggest only what chemistry has done without implying what it is. Another way of putting it is to say that the average beginning student–indeed the average person who is not himself a scientist–knows something about the applications of chemistry, but little else about the nature of the science, how it has developed, how it operates, what it can do, what it cannot do, and other such fundamental questions.

A Definition–Sort Of

Perhaps you are in that position also. You are enrolled in chemistry and wonder what you have let yourself in for. A look in almost any high school chemistry textbook provides you with a neat, brief, and easily memorized answer. Chemistry, it invariably points out, is that science dealing with the composition of materials, and the changes in composition which those materials undergo. Now that definition is about as correct as a one-sentence definition can be. But of course it suffers from the same defect that most such brief definitions do: it leaves out the “understanding” which can come only after much study of the subject itself. Read the definition over again, and then ask yourself if you honestly “know” what chemistry is. Try to answer these kinds of questions about it: What does it mean that chemistry is a “science”? How does it differ from those things which are not scientific? What does it have in common with the other subjects which are “sciences”? Or, to take a different tack, what is meant by the term “materials”? Is air a material? Electricity? Energy? And what constitutes a “change in composition”?–a change in color? in weight? substance? temperature?

Now these questions–and many more might have been asked-­were brought up, not to prove to you that your knowledge is limited. After all, limited knowledge is a condition only too true of all of us. The purpose was, rather, to emphasize the point that it is exceedingly difficult to tell you what chemistry is in digest form. You must experience chemistry for the thing it is: a living, growing, dynamic subject. It encompasses certain ideas, particular facts, special ways of doing things and of thinking about things, and specific tools and techniques.


There are certain kinds of questions for which it is admirably fitted to find answers; there are those which it could not even try to answer. Further, chemistry is related to the other sciences: thus, for instance, it is like physics, but different from it; it is part of biology, but not the same thing as biology. It affects and is affected by other areas of learning and activity: what chemistry develops in the way of medicines, fabrics, insecticides, explosives, and, most important of all, ideas, has an influence on how to live. In turn, social philosophy, the aims and performance of our governmental and educational institutions, wars, etc. directly or indirectly influence the progress–or lack of it–of chemistry.

So you see, all things considered, chemistry is more than “the science of chemicals”–a lot more! But whatever it may be, it is not something which can be explained in a sentence or two. It is to be hoped, however, that at the end of your course of chemistry you will be able to discourse at great length–with insight and understanding–on the question, “What Is Chemistry?”


The Goal: Understanding the Scientific Enterprise

The foregoing should provide a strong hint as to major objectives of this course in chemistry. It is, in brief, that each student–irrespective of his particular vocational aim-­should develop as full an understanding of what chemistry is as is possible within the limits of a single year of study. The course is not, therefore, designed merely to prepare you for a career in science or to take another course in chemistry in college. It can do that also if you want it to, but it is to be primarily concerned with something more important. It is critically important that every intelligent, educated person-­-yes, you, tomorrow’s leaders and decision-makers–should have the full understanding of science in the perspective referred to earlier; this course in chemistry seeks just that.

How to Reach the Goal

But how is that understanding to be gained? The plan of the course will be to emphasize the study of some of the great ideas of chemistry, to trace the origin and development of those ideas, and to look for the influence they have exerted on society and on men’s thinking. By making such an approach it should at the same time be possible to discover many important things about chemistry in particular and about science in general. A few of these are:
(1) What is the general way in which chemistry (or science”) operates? Does it proceed from “facts” to ideas,


from ideas to facts, or both? What does is assume? What “prove”?
(2) What is the role of experimentation? How is an exper­iment “controlled”? Does an experiment always give indisputable evidence?
(3) Which contributes more toward progress, pure or applied research? What is meant by “progress”? By “pure”? “Applied”? What is the relation of chemistry to technology?
(4) How does the attitude of peoples and their governments towards science affect scientific advance?

In Defense of an Historical Emphasis
To a very large degree this approach demands that considerable time be devoted to the study of concepts which have long ago become established and to problems which are no longer problems. There are two reasons for this:

(1) Most of the problems being worked on by chemists today are far too advanced and complex for the beginning student to comprehend. The frontiers of science have been advanced so far that a person cannot even hope to understand the language and procedures used, let alone the problems themselves. By contrast, some of the greatest ideas of chemistry were developed at a time when science was much simpler, when the problems could be stated in almost every day language, when as it were, the frontier of science was just across the street.

(2) To study the idea just as it stands today without reference to the story of its development is to miss a lot of color and excitement, as well as missing, in all likelihood, its fuller significance. It is like being told, for example, that at a baseball game which you had not attended Capuchino had won. That may be the most important single fact about the game– but it is not all that you would want to know. The score would be especially important to you. And you would want to know any number of other details, such as, the way the scores were made, the outstanding players on each side, the key plays, the reaction of the spectators, etc.

Returning to the world of chemistry, we find an analogous situation. One of the greatest and most exciting intellectual struggles of all time was the one from which emerged our current idea of what burning is. Suppose, upon inquiry, you are told that ordinary burning is a process whereby a substance unites with oxygen from the air. But to be told just that and no more is to have a very great idea sound trivial and dull. Once again there is a great deal more that you want to know: How tough a battle did our modern idea of burning have before it won out? What were the “key plays” in its victory? What other ideas did it have to overcome? Who were the leading personalities involved in the struggle? What was the reaction of society?


Do not take this to .mean that the “subject matter” of chemistry (in its strict sense) is to be avoided or slighted. It need not be–it cannot be! You cannot study the ideas of chemistry in some abstract, ethereal sort of way, divorcing them from the subject itself. Not only that, but the magnificent “big” ideas, the understanding of which is to be your main goal, all carry with them a whole team of “little” ideas which give meaning to the large one and which must likewise be grasped. Consider the example used earlier of a great concept which man conceived and came to accept only after centuries of effort and brilliant controversy, namely, “Ordinary burning is the process whereby a substance unites with oxygen.” This statement of the idea (not to be taken as the idea itself!) is pretty barren and stark as a representation of the modern view of what burning is. For it to have contemporary meaning for you, you should, to name but a few requirements, know something of oxygen and its properties, of what new substances are formed in the process, of the quantitative relationships between the various substances involved, and of how to represent the reaction with the proper symbols and equations.
Perhaps the goal of this course would be clearer if instead
of its name being merely “Chemistry”, it were “Modern Chemistry-­Its Development, Its Meaning, and Its Role as a Science.” Of course that title is much too long to use, but that is what will be meant when the standard short title is used.


A Difficulty Exists

A chemistry course such as outlined above is not at all common
at either the college or high school level. Now there is nothing wrong with having a course which is a little different from the others of the same name, providing, of course, that it maintains its standards. The difficulty which is encountered in this case is that suitable study sources are not readily available. None of the textbooks of chemistry treat the subject from the viewpoint discussed here. Further, the library does not yet contain needed works in sufficient quantity to serve all chemistry students.

One Very Short Sermon

But supplements galore cannot insure success–only you can
do that. If you can adopt an experimental attitude and a willingness to try something new, and if you can devote fair energy and effort to the course, then you should find that your year of chemistry has been highly rewarding and worthwhile. The reward offered is not very tangible, is not, for example, the


promise of better grades in school or college, or of a high­ paying job someday. What is offered is satisfaction, the self­-satisfaction of having learned something important to the understanding of today’s world.

Units of Study
All of the details of the course have not yet been worked out, since some matters are still pending such as the availability of certain source materials. In all likelihood, however, the larger units within which your study of chemistry will be organized are:

Unit 1. The Roots of Modern Chemistry. The technical arts and crafts of the ancient world, the thinking of Classical Greece, and the institution of alchemy will each be studied to see what contribution it made to modern chemistry. Special attention will be paid to alchemy to try to discover why it was that it was able to make important contributions to chemistry and yet, oddly enough, could never itself have become chemistry.

Unit 2. The Chemical Revolution. Modern chemistry emerged from the great struggle over the question of burning. The overthrow of the “wrong’ theory and the establishment of the “correct” one will be traced.

Unit 3. The Gases of the Atmosphere. It is easy enough to find a list naming the gases in the air and stating the percentage of each. But you will be asked to consider more difficult and important matters: How were those invisible substances ever discovered? What made men suspicious that they even existed at all? Why were some not discovered until just a few years ago?

Unit 4. Atomic-Molecular Theory. This forms the very foundation upon which today’s chemistry is built. And yet no one has ever “seen” an atom. Do they “really” exist? What is the evidence that makes the theory so compelling?

Unit 5. Classification of the Elements. The various schemes designed to demonstrate relationships between the elements will be analyzed. Special study will be devoted to Mendeleef’s system: it was “useful”, but was it “right”?

Unit 6. The Development of Chemical Industry. From the field or organic chemistry the growth of the dye and explosives industries will be traced. Effort will be made to see how chemistry as a pure science contributes to the growth of chemical industry and how chemistry as a technology helps in the progress of chemical science.