Why do we Study Chemistry?
Posted on July 7th, 2012

Dr Hector Perera           London

In a way I can say, chemistry is the study of matter and energy and the interaction between them. There are many reasons to study chemistry, even if you aren’t pursuing a career in science.

The reason is, chemicals are everywhere in the world around you! It’s in the food you eat, clothes you wear, water you drink, medicines, air, cleaners or gosh, you name anything it is there. Chemistry sometimes is called the “central science” because it connects other sciences to each others, such as biology, physics, geology and environmental science. Here are some of the best reasons to study chemistry.

I was wondering do these so called chefs who presents cooking programmes in the British TV have an understanding about the chemical reactions between the food they cook and the ingredients they add? Chemicals react according to certain chemical ratios, quantitative manner; they are temperature dependent and temperature sensitive.  One cannot add any food containing water on the surface of it directly into hot oil, without causing any danger, say for example cannot put a sausage or a piece of bacon to fry into fuming oil. One needs to understand the volatility of certain chemicals before any cooking is done safely. Quite often you witness these chefs add wine, brandy or similar drinks to flavour the food in frying pans. They know it catches fire, some essential ingredients burn away and the height of the fire sometimes goes to very dangerous levels. The extractor fan and the cover are usually coated with a thick layer of oil deposits and likely to cause a major fire.

Why do we store cleaning chemicals such as bleach, sprays, methyl alcohol and soap powder in a separate cupboard than storing with cooking ingredients? Why do we put paints, paint cleaning stuff, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides in a separate cupboard than putting vegetables, onions and spices in the same cupboard? The answer is you know they have to be separated to avoid any food poisoning so even our servants knew some chemistry already.

Even the village farmers know these things so one cannot say the farmers don”‘t know and apply some chemistry. Why not educate these farmers a little bit better about the use, safe handling of farming chemicals to avoid any accidents. He knows fuels such as petrol, diesel, and kerosene give out some volatile vapours, not healthy to breath, likely to catch fire not suitable to store in the kitchen.

Even in supermarkets certain chemical products are displayed away from food stuff due to many reasons. I went to the soap and washing powder section in a supermarket but I could smell these volatile chemicals. I was watching some ladies open liquid soap bottles and sniff to check the actual smell; does it really smell like roses or tulip?  If many of them do the same, would you not agree that section smells of chemicals although the chemicals are stored up in sealed containers?

World Foods

Unlike in the past, some supermarkets sell many food stuffs eaten by many communities such as Asian, African, Chinese, Japanese or Korean, they named the section as “…”World Food”‚. Sometimes I take a moment to browse the shelves to find plenty of Sri Lankan foods such as, “…”Pol Sambols, Polos curry, Fried dry fish bottles, Seeni Sambol”‚ and many more are found mainly over there. Even bottled King Coconut water with floating pieces of kernel is found. The spice section smelled of roasted curry powder, chillies, corianders, cumin powder and dry fish. These are in sealed packets and bottles but may be some are opened to check the smell, who knows.

You momentarily get hypnotised?

If you walk into any department store and go to the perfumery section, does it smell of perfumes? Even in London Oxford Street, the largest department stores are no exceptions. There are free test samples and a whole team of counter girls to catch your eyes by smartly dressing or partially undressing may be to get the attention of passing by potential customers then spray on their hands. Take my word, once you stop to test the perfumes, very likely your debit card or credit card comes out, it”‘s true! In a way you are forced to sniff these chemicals. I heard some perfume manufacturers use some chemicals that are used only in hypnotherapy, so would it be possible that you get momentarily hypnotised to buy them?

A few applications of chemistry

I got attracted to chemicals and reactions even when I was a child. When my dad was working in Tangalle hospital, one day my elder sister and the ayah, stopped by a shoe mender. I was fascinated to see how he mends the broken shoe by using a colourless glue. I was about 7yrs old; I politely asked what it was and asked for some of it. He said, to put a little petrol with crape rubber in a bottle to make it. I was delighted to get some rubber and a few drops of petrol in a little bottle.

Sometime later, I observed how a man cleaned the drains; he put some white powder, left it for a while then washed it away. Later I found out it was nothing but bleaching powder. Much later my dad worked in another rural hospital in Matalae area where there was a huge land belonging to the hospital. The servant boy and the hospital workers planted banana trees when they had free time. I got a stain on my shirt and the sarong that I wear at home during the school holidays. I thought if that white powder could whiten the drains why not it remove stains on clothes. That time I was 17 or so studying at Dharmaraja College in Kandy. To my surprise it worked but one day I put more of it and left it too long but to my surprise it burned the stain patch, made a hole in the sarong. That showed me to be aware of the time factor and the concentration of the chemical to be used. The chemical reactions are time, concentration and temperature dependent; these factors can increase or decrease the rate of reactions.

 I used an Advanced Level volumetric analytical reaction to clean the toilet. This is how I did it, got some KONDIS, [Potassium permanganate] and carefully sprinkled some of this substance on the toilet using a spoon, in the stained areas. Then used a long stick with some cotton wool at one end and soaked with conc: HCl and carefully, gently rubbed on the KONDIS which looks pink. It would have been better, if there was a little syringe to spray conc: HCl on the stained areas, my method needs no scrubbing at all. This reaction creates instant chlorine, or nascent chlorine, careful not to breathe this nasty smelling gas. It should take only a minute or so, leave it for five minutes, remember one factor is, the reaction is time dependent. Then put an ounce of sodium oxalate into a glass of hot water and gently pour over the pink areas. It will turn instantly perfect white due to bleaching. You may repeat the procedure if necessary. The chemistry practical book never mentioned how to modify this reaction to clean toilets. Again I used chemistry knowledge to a household use. These chemicals are available on the counter in some shops, I found in a shop in Nugegoda.

Beatle stains

When I was teaching in a private college in Colombo, a teacher called Mr Silva from Galle, was so delighted to see how I removed his beatle stains on his shirt while he was wearing it. Again I used the same principle but modified, any body is interested to know? Let me tell you in simple language, all I needed was a tiny speck of potassium permanganate and one drop of cocn: HCl  in a small test tube. Then I put a drop of water, no more, on the stain then turn the test tube upside down on the stain. Remember I put one drop of conc: HCl and a tiny speck of potassium permanganate only so nothing to dribble down but the dense chlorine gas comes down when I put the test tube upside down on the stain spot. Then instantly it removed the stain, how”‘s that? Please tell me, who modified that reaction before me for a simple purpose like that? That is what I say, sometimes I modify or apply the chemical knowledge and principles for some day to day purposes, including for normal cooking, cleaning toilets and removing stains and many more. When solid KONDIS is acidified with conc: HCl it generates instant chlorine which is a very strong oxidising agent that is how it cleans toilets. I think I got a solution to get rid of fungal disease in coconut trees, may be nobody is interested, so I leave it for now. I used that technique to save an apply tree from fungal disease so if that works for some kind of tree fungus on apples trees, why not it works for coconut trees? Who wants to know?

 A visit to Dentist

Can you remember when you visited the dentist, you get this pink solution to wash the mouth, it is the same KONDIS or potassium permanganate. When you wash with it, the chemical reaction is oxidation, it oxidises any germs that means some of them get killed. 

A command of chemistry can help keep you safe! You’ll know which household chemicals are dangerous to keep together or mix and which can be used safely.

Even village children know chemistry

 I have seen some village children make hydrogen filled balloons by using simple chemicals. Have you not heard during the Sinhalese New Year, again some village boys make explosive sounds by using a bamboo sticks and kerosene?  Have you not heard or seen how some villagers crack huge rocks using a kind of dynamites? Who created Nobel Prize, it”‘s based on chemistry. These are some applications of chemistry.

Chemistry teaches useful skills because it is a science, learning chemistry means learning how to be objective and how to reason and solve problems. The word chemistry sounds like a mystery.

Chemistry explains how food changes as you cook it, how it rots, how to preserve food, how your body uses the food you eat, and how ingredients interact to make food. I have extended my ideas into intermolecular, intermolecular, Van De Waals force, vaporisation, hydrogen bonding, thermal conductivity and to few more including the methods of heat lost for the process of cooking. Unlike any other chefs, additionally I use chemistry knowledge to save or cut down the energy wastage then of course to educate the public, the school children, systematically on my ideas so they benefit. How many chefs know that when meats are burnt for example in BBQ, the chemical structure of meat change, when you eat them it is possible to activate or stimulate some cancer cells? This has been extensively researched, so it is true. I know they are tasty but try and avoid eating any burnt meat.

Part of the importance of chemistry is it explains how cleaning works, your medicines such as tablets, ointments, injections, tonics and many more medicines.  It also helps you understand the Environmental Issues; Chemistry is at the heart of environmental issues.

In a way, we’re all chemists; we use chemicals every day and perform chemical reactions without thinking much about them. Chemistry is important because everything you do is chemistry! Even your body is made of chemicals. Chemical reactions occur when you breathe, eat, or just sit there reading. All matter is made of chemicals, so the importance of chemistry is that it’s the study of everything.

Students wanting to become doctors, nurses, physicists, nutritionists, geologists, pharmacists, and (of course) chemists all study chemistry. You might want to make a career of chemistry because chemistry related jobs are plentiful and high paying. The importance of chemistry won’t be diminished over time, so it will remain a promising career path. Any comments perera6@hotmail.co.uk

2 Responses to “Why do we Study Chemistry?”

  1. AnuD Says:

    Some where else, I read, if we know the properties of the electron, we can explain most of the chemistry.

    In another place, Mathematics is the most basic subject and it deals with probability. Then comes Astronomy. After that the three pure science subjects – Physics, Chemistry and Biology comes. All other subjects are derived from those subjects.

  2. sena Says:

    The bright job prospects in the last paragraph may be over blown. Like other pure science subjects, chemistry or elements of it is incorporated in so many other majors, the identity of it as a discrete profession has been confounded. Chemistry is steadily loosing it appeal as a major in universities

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