Why every student should take chemistry: An astrophysicist’s perspective

salt crystals

The global COVID-19 pandemic, year-round wildfires in the western US, destructive flooding in the eastern half of the US, prolonged and oppressive heat waves, another below average year for mountain snow packs in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada ranges– it is hard to not be aware of these events that affect many of our students and ourselves as well. But alas, as astrophysicist Adam Frank says: "We should never forget that below all that mess is a cosmic order that far outlasts our brief moment on Earth." At the end of the semester for my last class or last lecture, I ask my students why it is important for every person to take a chemistry class– and then I read the class the quote below (in italics) from Prof. Frank that provides a covalent bond of sorts between chemistry and the current problems of the world. And all you have to do is show your students some table salt.

The good news I'm bringing you comes from the universe itself, and you can find it in something as simple as a single grain of salt. Actually, it's not a grain of table salt I want you to focus on but the [crystal] structure making up that grain. See, every salt molecule is made of exactly one atom of the element sodium and one atom of the element chlorine. That never changes. And while it might seem a little weird, I'm here to tell you that we can take great comfort in that tiny atomic fact. Your sea salt, your pink Himalayan salt, it might have some extra additives in there like iodine, and there are other compounds that scientists like to call salts, but no matter what, the sodium chloride molecules in your salt shaker are always hooked together in exactly the same way. That never changes. And it's a constancy that means that every molecule of salt has exactly the same properties as every other molecule of salt in the entire universe. Through all of space and all of time, all salt molecules look the same. They move the same. And most importantly, they behave the same.

See, at the rock bottom basement level of the universe, things are not a mess. Instead, there is a kind of angels singing in the clouds sublime order that science reveals to us. And every molecule of salt has a shape and a behavior that is in turn perfectly specified. They are like beautiful cosmic Lego blocks clicking together in the most perfect way. And this never, ever changes. The fact that all atoms everywhere across the universe display this perfect, unchanging, Lego block order is why the reliability of chemistry is possible. It's why nature can start with tiny atoms and use them to build all the other things that make up the wonder of life around us- you know, stuff like mountains and oceans, slime molds and sequoia trees, spiders and cocker spaniels, dolphins and elephants. All that wonderful and complex stuff exists because perfect, simple atomic rules live at the world's smallest and most invisible levels.

So, yes, humans and our conflicts can be a horrible mess, but we should never forget that below all that mess is a cosmic order that far outlasts our brief moment on Earth. And it's an order that the whole miracle that is life depends upon. And to see this wonder, all you got to do is pass the salt. Source of quote: