What makes chemistry different?

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

A well known physicist turned venture capitalist asked on Twitter the other day why people seem to have a harder time understanding chemistry rather than physics or biology. Chemistry is by no means harder to understand than physics or biology, but it occupies a tricky middle ground between rigor and intuition, between deduction and creation, between creativity and understanding. Understanding it can bring great dividends: Robert Oppenheimer once said that “If you want to get someone interested in science teach them a course on elementary chemistry…unlike physics it gets very quickly to the heart of things.”

Chemistry’s path was partly driven by an impulse to understand the physical world, much like the path of physics and astronomy, but somewhat differently from physics and astronomy, to consciously improve the material conditions of life. What passed for medicine, art, architecture, agriculture and commerce in the ancient world was suffused with chemistry. Whether it was indigo dye for royal textiles, mercury or arsenic for medicine, lime for protecting crops or plaster for holding together stones of medieval stone buildings, the world looked to chemistry, whether consciously or not, to feed, transport, clothe and sustain itself. But this foundational practical role that chemistry played also obscured its philosophy.

The philosophy of chemistry developed in the 18th and 19th centuries through the work of Dalton, Lavoisier, Liebig, Kekule, Mendeleev and other thinkers. They systematized the vast body of observations that natural philosophers had documented and assimilated over the years. But key questions still remained: Why did water freeze at 4 degrees Celsius? Why were gallium and mercury liquids? Why was lithium relatively stable while its cousin sodium a fiery, unstable beast? Even Mendeleev’s famed periodic table, after answering the how, did not answer the why. Read more »

Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry: Seven Better Products We Didn’t Need But Now Can’t Live Without

by Carol Westbrook

“Our house will never have that old people smell!” my husband said when he discovered Febreze. Yes, it's true! Using highly sophisticated chemistry (described below), Febreze truly eliminates odors, not just mask them with scent like air fresher. This was when I realized that the 1960's promise made by DuPont was being fulfilled, “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry!” I've put together seven of my favorite products that chemistry has improved, excluding the obvious true advances in medicine, electronics, energy and so on. Instead, I've highlighted products we probably did not even need, but now can't live without. Who made them, and how do they work? Fig 1 Better things

1. Super Glue ©

Super Glue delivers what its name promises: it can stick almost anything together with a bond so strong that a 1-inch square can hold more than a ton. Besides household projects and repair, it's an effective skin adhesive for cuts, and those nasty dry-skin cracks you get on your hands in the winter. The myth is that Super Glue, or cyanoacrylate (C5H5NO2) was created as surgical adhesive for WWII field hospitals. In reality, it was invented by Goodrich in 1942 as a potential plastic for gunsights; it was rejected because its annoying property of sticking to everything made it impossible to fabricate. Fast forward to 1951, when it was rediscovered by scientists Harry Coover and Fred Joyner at Eastman Kodak, who recognized its potential as a glue. Initially it was used industrially, but in the 1970s it was introduced as a consumer project that rapidly took off.

Cyanoacrylate is a small molecule that binds to itself creating long chains, or polymers, when exposed to water–including water vapor in the air. The polymers are extremely strong acrylic plastics that rapidly bind whatever they contact when polymerizing. Unlike many adhesives, Super Glue cures almost instantly and can stick your fingers together before you can wipe it off. For obvious reasons it is packaged in small, one-use containers.

Read more »