Chemistry of Understanding

Bal Ram Singh, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth


Although there are amazing things going on all the time, we rarely stop to think and notice them. Recently, a young lady, while taking information for a subscription over the phone, casually asked me what I teach. On hearing that I teach chemistry, I heard the so often repeated phrase, “ Oh, I was never good at chemistry.” I had heard such amazements at chemistry among the general public before, but I had really never given any serious thought to what it exactly meant. Most of the time, I took it as a conversation point, or a compliment at the most.


During this latest conversation on this topic, suddenly, it came to my realization that everybody was good at chemistry, for without being good at chemistry, no one could survive. After all, proper and adequate chemistry is at the heart of the life of all kinds, not just humans. And not just the life but sheer existence of everything, be it rock or the rocket, is good and dependent on chemistry. I know, I know - those who say they are not good at chemistry, they mean they do not understand it well, not that they really are not good at chemistry. That is the point. Even humans do not realize that everyone of them is really good chemist, albeit subconsciously.

So, it basically boils down to the understanding of the chemistry, which is difficult, and consequently distinct for different people. But the idea that “everything is good at chemistry” remains, and only the understanding differs. Thus if we understand the chemistry of anything well we will have the same good understanding of chemistry. This should remove all the notions of a superiority complex among various types of chemists, analytical (most major departments are trying to eliminate it!), bio (NIH is its is biggest supporter!), organic (bad name, with too many environmentally unfriendly synthetic chemicals; in danger of being replaced with green chemistry), inorganic (most students cannot get excited by it, for too long now), and physical (too dependent on physicists, who seem to have lost clues to matter).

The major advantage we as chemists have is the understanding. This idea has become ingrained in people so much so that it has become a journalistic and political jargon – good chemistry between two leaders, etc. What do we as chemists make of these references? It probably refers to a good understanding between two individuals. It is the understanding, stupid!

We understand this world by observing all the matters (remember, chemistry is defined as the study of matter), primarily using five sensory faculties. Of course, there is much known information on the chemistry of sensory perception, though we still are substantially far from complete understanding of these reactions. So, we need instruments of all kinds to get to the bottom of some of these processes. To make an instrument, we use our primitive understanding of tools to design and build parts, assemble them, and make measurements to analyze and understand.

Since nothing is perfect in this world, efficiency at every level is less than one, and ultimate efficiency is a product of efficiencies of all the steps. Assuming 0.9 for efficiency (being quite generous) of every step (part, process, design, analysis, understanding, etc.), and 24 steps in examining an item (no, I am not talking about Mars though Hubble), the ultimate understanding remains only 0.08. This is terrible way to develop an understanding, and the results are everywhere to see – from Osama bin Laden to George Bush.

Where does this lead us then? My answer: commonsense. That is nonsense, you say: How could chemistry, being such a sophisticated source of understanding, have anything serious to do with commonsense?

Let us try. In order to understand anything, it seems the best way is to apply the least steps to maintain fidelity of the information by reducing the loss in efficiency. The one object that we can understand with the least number of instruments, processes, design, etc. is ourselves. The most anyone, instrument, theory, analysis, etc. can understand us is ourselves. So, it is the self-study of self (SOS) which could lead to the most understanding. And, chemistry is by far the best modern way to SOS, making the circle of learning through something we all are very good at, i.e., chemistry of self. I know, I know. You say, isn’t that biochemistry?

As a biophysical chemist, I say it is more than that. It will always be more than anything anyone else ever tells you about you. Chemistry of self is not just interdisciplinary or central science; it is life to learn individually and infinitely.