Chemistry: Its bond with the past

Organic chemistry is enough to drive
one mad! It is like a tropical forest,
filled with the most peculiar things,
dense, endless, impossible to find
one’s way out of, a place which one
should avoid entering.

No, this is not the exasperated expression of a beginning student of organic chemistry. This was a statement made by a young Friedrich Wӧhler to his aging mentor, Jons Jacob Berzelius in a letter written in 1834. Wӧhler, you may recall, was one of the pioneers of organic chemistry noted for his original synthesis of urea from ammonium cyanate, thus linking inorganic to organic chemistry, the chemistry of non-life to the chemistry of life. Berzelius was a master chemist of his time who developed analytical chemistry into an art. He analyzed the percent composition of most of the chemical compounds then known, a total of nearly 2000. Among his many contributions to modern terminology, he suggested the word protein (from the Greek word “proteios” meaning primitive) to describe those chemicals proposed to be the prime constituents of life.

As a student and as teachers of chemistry, we tend to take for granted the evolution of understanding of the basic laws of chemistry. It seems as if this knowledge came to us eternally engraved in a book, never to be challenged or doubted. How easy it is to forget or overlook that these laws, so familiar to us today, were once the basis of heated argument and debate. Certainly, the behavior of matter which the laws describe has existed, but our understanding of the behavior has undergone many changes. Carl Sagan, an outspoken astrophysicist, expresses this viewpoint in his book, The Cosmic Connection (page 73):

…there is a big difference between stating
what science has discovered and describing
how scientists have found it all out. It is pretty
easy to summarize the conclusions. It is hard
to relate all the mistakes, false leads, ignored
clues, dedication, hard work, and painful
abandonment of earlier views that go into the
initial discovery of something interesting.

The “what” and “why” of chemistry have been amply expressed in many fine textbooks. However, this is often at the loss of the “how”, i.e., how has the knowledge of chemistry evolved? Knowing how the laws of chemistry came to be revealed, through the insight, reasoning and logic of many minds, can lead to an enhancement of our own understanding and appreciation of this science.

(This article is a reprint from the March 1979 issue of Chem 13 News, page 17, where permission was given from The Sinchem Chronicle, a publication of the Sinclair Community College Chemistry Department.)