The Perfection of Gas and the Greatness of Organic Compounds

Just like Olympic judges, chemists have established a set of attributes that describe perfection so that we measure everything else relative to an impossible standard. The Ideal Gas is purely hypothetical; consisting of identical particles of zero volume with no intermolecular forces. This approach struck me as arrogant until I understood that Gas Laws that followed:

1. Graham’s Law: rate of movement is proportional to mass

2. Dalton’s Law: total pressure is the sum of individual pressures

3. Boyle’s Law: volume varies with pressure (at constant temperature)

4. Charles’s Law: volume varies with temperature (at constant pressure).

The early chemists weren’t just Photoshopping. By imagining perfection, they found a way  to describe reality.

The reality of my upcoming exam pushed me to finish the final chapter which was Organic Chemistry, the study of compounds that contain carbon. These compounds are deemed ‘organic’ because carbon was originally obtained from the remains of living things, like coal. The carbon atom of today is the backbone of thousands of compounds that keep us warm, healthy, clothed, and together. Travel and romance would be nothing without carbon.

What makes carbon great is its four outer electrons that are able to form single, double, and even triple bonds. And bond it does, creating almost endless chains of molecules that are used to make fuel, medicine, textiles, and adhesives. The same atom is responsible for the diamonds in my wedding band and the gasoline in my car.

Maybe perfection and greatness are closer than I imagined.

Next up: The Last Lap

The Beginning of the End

I learned a few things about pressure last week. It started when I looked at my syllabus and realized that there are only two chapters between me and the final exam. Suddenly, visions of my first day as a bumbling novice loomed large with lots of sweaty details. Then my usually latent test anxiety kicked in. I agree with philosopher Peter Koestenbaum that anxiety “is not something to get over” and that understanding it is “the beginning of an authentic life”, but between the writer’s block and the sleeplessness I was not having fun.

Fortunately, we chemists know how to use pressure to our advantage. We compress gases every day so that you can fill up tires and basketballs, transport truckloads of hydrogen, and dispense just enough helium to make funny voices.  The Ideal Gas Law, PV=nRT, gives us a way to understand how pressure (P) varies with the volume of the container (V), the amount of gas molecules (n), and temperature (T). R is a constant that holds it all together. Solving for P= (nRT) / V we see that as volume goes up, pressure goes down. As the amount of gas or the temperature increases, the pressure also increases. This is probably the most intuitively obvious formula that exists.

Since there is no formula for self-inflicted pressure, I decided to change my isolating equation of study+quiz+blog+repeat by adding a reality constant. First step: I scheduled my final exam for February 27th. It felt good to take control of my fate, or at least my schedule. My home coach always encourages me to get classroom time during my training, so I contacted Appleton City Public Schools and Rockhurst High School for some classroom observation and substitute teaching. Finally, I talked to a retired teacher. Her repeated assurances that there is no amount of work that will adequately prepare me for the first year were not reassuring. However, I did appreciate her recommendation to attend Interface 2014, which is a three day conference sponsored by Missouri University and the Missouri Department of Education for high school Math and Science teachers.

Will I find other people that feel the same way I do about Chemistry? Will I find my “Community of Truth”, so beautifully drawn by Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach?  Stay tuned.

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