Why do I have to study chemistry, too (two)?

More than a decade ago, in a conversation with an instructor of physics, an article entitled, “Why Do I Have to Study Physics?”¹ was mentioned. Upon reading that article, I concluded that a similar reference was needed in chemistry. The article that I wrote as a result of that conversation was published in the Journal of Chemical Education.²

Students still continue to labor under the misconception that the study of biology is more relevant to their daily life than is the study of chemistry (or physics). Having majored in both biology and chemistry, and having taught both sciences, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that a working knowledge of chemistry impacts nearly every facet of our lives.

The original article has been used by chemistry instructors in a variety of ways. These include a culminating writing-in-chemistry/research activity in which students answer the questions posed in the scenario and an introduction-to-chemistry writing activity in which students are assigned the task of posing their own questions.

For several years, I have been thinking about writing a second installment. A contact from Chem 13 News about authoring a second part to the article provided the necessary impetus to do so.

While the aforementioned writing activities could be used in conjunction with this second narrative, Jean Hein, editor of Chem 13 News, suggests using the narrative to stimulate students to complete a different writing activity. Each student would be given a different daily activity to relate to chemistry. Subsequently, the instructor could read the students’ accounts (in order), and, together, they could make a fun and perhaps humorous story.

In both of the previously mentioned articles, the text is written from the student’s point of view in a “stream of consciousness” style. This second installment continues using this format. The new scenario’s questions result from the student’s preparations for a vacation shortly before the start of a new academic year.

Well, here it is, the day I have to get ready to go to the beach for vacation before school starts again in a couple of weeks. I’m happy that we’re going to take my car. I think I’ll get the car ready first. I want it to look good while I’m traveling, so I think I’ll detail it. When the spray from the hose bounces off the car, I see a rainbow. Why does that happen? The chamois dries the water quickly, since I waxed the car a few weeks ago, and the water just beads up on the paint. I wonder why water beads up on wax. I wonder how wax protects the paint. This car wash says it has wax in it. How does the wax stay mixed in the car wash when wax does not mix with the water drops on the car?

I think I’ll use this new nanowax to put on a better shine. I remember the metric prefix “nano-” from chemistry class, but what could be “nano-” about this wax? This carbon fiber hood I bought really looks nice. I wonder what carbon fibers are and how they are different than the carbon powder we saw in chemistry class last year or the activated carbon I use in my aquarium. How could they “activate” carbon?

Well, back to detailing. I think I’ll clean the windows to be sure I can see well when I’m driving. This window cleaner contains ammonia and the other one contains methyl alcohol. I wonder why they put ammonia or alcohol in window cleaner.  What makes methyl alcohol different than drinking alcohol or the alcohol that’s in the hand sanitizer that I use?

I should check under the hood. I need to check the coolant level. It looks a little low. This antifreeze label says it lowers the freezing temperature of water and raises the boiling temperature, too. How can it do both? The label also says that it provides corrosion resistance. I wonder what happens to make the radiator corrode, and I wonder what could be in the antifreeze to prevent corrosion.

At least I don’t have to check the battery. My dad told me about checking the water level in the battery when he was young. I wonder how car batteries have changed so that we don’t need to add water to them now. He said that he used to add distilled water. I saw a distillation set-up to purify water in chemistry last year, but what would be in tap water to cause problems in a battery? I wonder what is in the car battery to make it so much heavier than the battery in my laptop. According to the label, the laptop uses a lithium-ion battery. How could the lithium that we saw in chemistry class be used in that battery? I remember some ions, but I wonder which ones are found in the battery and what do they do? I sure am glad that I don’t have to carry a battery as heavy as the one in this car to use my laptop!

The new brushed stainless steel battery box that I installed really looks good. What do they add to make the steel “stainless?” The clerk at the auto parts store told me that it not only looks good, but it will not get corroded by the battery acid. There’s that “corrosion” again. I wonder why acid is in the battery. How does it get out of the battery to damage the metal around the battery? I wonder what really happens to the metal when it gets corroded.

I need to check the pressure in the tires. I wonder what this “PSI” on the pressure gauge means. I hope that my new tires ride well. The salesman told me that these letters tell about tread wear rate, traction and temperature resistance. How do they change the rubber in the tires to give better traction and longer tread wear? I wonder why they are concerned about temperature. I hope having the tires filled with nitrogen instead of air was a wise choice. I wonder how nitrogen makes the tires last longer.

Now that the car is clean and ready to go, I think I’ll pick up some supplies for the trip from the grocery store. This bottled water says that it was treated with ozone. I wonder why they would do that. How would they get the ozone into the water, and how do they get it out? Here is some flavored water. What are artificial flavors, and how do they make the water taste sweeter without adding any calories?

These cheese curds might taste good during the drive tomorrow. Cheddar is my favorite. How does milk get turned into cheese, and how do they make all the different kinds of cheese?

There goes my cell phone. This text message is from my friend Brad in Alaska. Wow, the picture he sent shows that the leaves have already started to change up there. I wonder how my cell phone can display nice pictures like this. How do leaves change color?

Boy, this picture really reminds me of how close we are to autumn and how soon I’ll be back in school. Chemistry really wasn’t that bad last year. I learned quite a bit, and now I understand that chemistry does explain a lot about how things work in my everyday life. I wonder if chemistry II will answer any of the questions that I’ve thought about today. Well, school can wait until after vacation. I still need to go home and pack.

Literature cited

  1. Gordon Gore, The Physics Teacher. 1997, 35, 378.
  2. Kenneth G. Barker, Jr. Journal of Chemical Education. October 2000, page 1300.