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Chemistry is David Bowie

You know how when you’re really into something, you want to tell the world about it? Like that weird old Finnish movie, or that accidental ice cream topping, or that song that makes you want to kick trashcans out of pure lust? That’s how I feel about chemistry. For every person who’s walking around not knowing […]

Nari Ward, Den, 1999

Nari Ward, Den, wood, chain-link fence, metal pole, tacks, rug, wooden furniture legs. 1999

You know how when you’re really into something, you want to tell the world about it? Like that weird old Finnish movie, or that accidental ice cream topping, or that song that makes you want to kick trashcans out of pure lust? That’s how I feel about chemistry. For every person who’s walking around not knowing how great it is, an injustice has been done. And if you can’t imagine why I would possibly get all panty-tossy for chemistry, well then I especially want to talk to you.

This sudden need to evangelize doesn’t come from my spending more time in the lab with test tubes and goggles and Dmitri Mendeleev hair (I wish). It’s nothing so obvious, which is exactly what I’m on about. Rather, I spend my days studying how humans think about science, and my nights (and weekends and dreams) trying to figure out how to get humans to think about science – and it’s not easy. Chemicals don’t shoot their rabid husbands or go around in deer-hunting caps calling people “phonies”.

Or do they? 

I know, I sound like that jam band friend, like, “Just give me nine minutes to play you this track, it’ll be so worth it.” But that’s not my style. Three minutes, that’s my style. Better yet, three posts — give me three blog posts.

Post #1: Chemistry Did it First

Remember when you were young and you didn’t know better, and you heard David Bowie for the first time, and you were like, “This guy sounds like every other rockstar out there, I know where this is going.” But the reason you thought that? That familiar thing you hear in his songs? He did it first. That thing you think you’ve heard a million times already, he invented that. Or, if you’re old enough that you remember the beginning of David Bowie, you may notice that a lot of what he did he stole from Gospel. And a lot of Gospel came from West Africa, and, as Stevie Wonder once said to me, “We all come from Africa, don’t we?”

What I’m saying is chemistry is the mother-loving Fertile Crescent of science. Keep that in mind, because in a second you’re going to tune out when we get into the bit about atoms, and I don’t want that to happen. I want you here with me.

You’ve got the elements, right? The Elements, like on the chart in school. They’re sometimes called “chemical elements,” because that’s exactly what they are:  Each element is a chemical. The elements can combine to make even more chemicals, but alone, each is a chemical. So you know what that means, right? Everything is chemicals. You, me, VHS tapes, Steve Harvey, those aforementioned ice cream toppings – all chemicals. And those chemicals are made up of combinations of atoms, every atom being one of those elements*-  you being made of these elements.

Because there is no atom for You.

 The most basic part of You that can still be recognized as You, that’s your DNA (unless you’ve got identical siblings or clones running around out there that you haven’t told me about, and that would be weird. I thought we were friends). And your DNA? Also chemicals––four, to be specific (plus a slightly different one for RNA). Only when you grab a bunch of atoms from that periodic table, as though from some omnipotent menu, and get those chemical elements to “cooperate”, to join forces and become chemical compounds, and then, as chemical compounds to pair up to complete your DNA – only then do we find something that is You. Full of the you-ness that Michael Crichton could theoretically suck out of an amber-encased mosquito and clone into a park of Yous.

And the same way that atoms turn into to compounds that turn into your DNA? So it is with everything on Earth. Wait, no:  so it is with everything in the observable universe. When they do their thing, when elemental chemicals combine to become some chemical compound or another, that’s a chemical reaction. And when those compounds change from one chemical to another, that’s a chemical reaction, too. That’s how anything, everything happens, ever – from the Big Bang to Beatlemania to the transfer of this information between neurons in your brain right now: it boils down to chemical reactions, one after another, the same atoms rearranging and rearranging (except, kind of, for the ones we’ve chosen to explode from time to time, but that’s a story for another day), on and on forever, amen.

How can you not love that shit?

Let’s listen to it one more time.

*That’s why we call them “elements”, of course:  They are as basic as it gets. Like how earth, wind, fire and water are elements, only, you know, real. Because even Earth, Wind, and Fire are made up of chemicals, atoms of various types (including a whole lotta funk, whatever the chemical equation for that is**).

** Submissions for “Chemical Equation of Funk” are welcome.