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Learning and Doing

I enjoyed seeing this question on the r/Chemistry part of Reddit – it’s from a person in their 30s, who wasn’t that good a student, but is now looking to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. The question was how much chemistry can be learned by reading and studying, as opposed to having a lab course.

My own take is that there’s a difference between “knowing about chemistry” and “being a chemist”. But not everyone’s trying to be a chemist. I think that you can go a good ways to attaining that first goal without necessarily doing much (or any) lab work, especially if, as in this case, you’re starting pretty much from scratch. There are a lot of big ideas just waiting to be picked up. I think that at the high school/freshman chemistry level, the lab work helps to illustrate things, and may make some of the material more memorable (or believable!), but isn’t crucial to learning the key concepts.

Where it is valuable is in learning how to “do” chemistry (or science in general), and for students just starting out, that’s a good thing. Some of them are going to find out that they like doing it or find it interesting, and some of them are going to discover the opposite, and that’s part of figuring out what you’d want to study and what you might be good at. But for someone in their 30s who already is earning a living, and who just wants to understand what chemistry is about, I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker. (That said, there are certainly “kitchen chemistry” experiments that can be done pretty easily. Then there’s Robert Bruce Thompson’s book on home chemistry experiments, and there’s always YouTube, where you can watch everything from dissolving salt out of sand to what happens when you spray chlorine trifluoride on used lab equipment).

So “learning about chemistry” can be done by anyone with access to a library or a computer, and good for them for wanting to do some. Now for a bit about “being a chemist”: even among professional chemists, there are naturally plenty of people who don’t set foot in the lab. Computational and theoretical chemists are the first group that come to mind, and no one would (or should) dispute that they’re “real chemists”. Even if you’re going to be doctrinaire about it, and say that no one’s a chemist who hasn’t made something happen in a lab, then all the theoreticians, like anyone else with a degree in the field, did have to do some lab work during their schooling, at the very least. Past them, there are any number of professors in academia and managers in industry who rarely (if ever) pick up a flask, although they certainly did in earlier years. So I’m going to take a functional definition: if you can contribute to discussions among professional chemists about scientific and technical issues, then I’m definitely willing to consider you a chemist, no matter what other hats you may also wear.

Getting back to the first point, the category of “someone who’s learned some chemistry” is a lot broader, and I very much welcome anyone who wants to join it. I think it’s great that someone who feels that they really didn’t learn this stuff wants to go back and remedy that, and the same goes for math, physics, biology, history and literature. I’ve been accustomed to reading up on things that I’m interested in, filling gaps in my knowledge, and satisfying my curiosity my whole life, and if anyone’s inclined that way I’m happy to cheer them on. I can’t imagine any other way to live, personally, although I know that there are several billion people who seem to get along fine without.

29 comments on “Learning and Doing”

  1. Curious Wavefunction says:

    Being a chemist is not about knowing how to set up this experiment or run that calculation per se, it’s about getting a feel for structure, reactivity and synthesis. It’s about being able to interpret results of both lab and theoretical experiments in terms of these parameters, being able to see strengths and limitations of competing techniques and ideas and being able to suggest what molecules should be made or tested next based on this analysis.

    That being said, I agree that anyone who has had a good reading in elementary chemistry can contribute to a discussion in the field. Oppenheimer who majored in chemistry was of the opinion that “If you want to get someone interested in science teach them a course on elementary chemistry”. And as Roger Kornberg said, “If there is any one subject an educated person should know, that is chemistry”. So the person on Reddit is on the right track.

  2. Chemistring says:

    I like this view on the subject, personally:
    “If I were to present myself before you with an offer to teach you some new game:–if I were to tell you of an improved plan of throwing a ball, of flying a kite, or of playing at leapfrog, oh, with what attention you would listen to me! Well, I am going to teach you many new games. I intend to instruct you in a science full of interest, wonder, and beauty; a science that will afford you amusement in your youth, and riches in your more mature years. In short, I am going to teach you the science of chemistry.” – John Scoffern, Chemistry No Mystery

  3. Double Shelix says:

    As with many things in life, the operations and the knowledge are almost unrelated. There are so many chemists with encyclopedic knowledge of named reactions and transformations, who never develop or have the innate talents for “chemistry hands”. Likewise, i’ve known some great BS level chemists who don’t go nuts staying on top of the literature, but can run reliably incredibly sensitive Hecks, or are the best recrystallizers in the world.

    Sadly i fall in the middle: I am clumsy and therefore am not the greatest lab success, but i’ve done a LOT of chemisty in my life. I can draw on that knowledge to optimize a route, and i have a decent instinct for certain transformations and operations more than others.

    It’s a crapshoot!!

    1. Mol Biolologist says:

      Crapshoot. Craps is a game in which players make wagers on the outcomes of rolls of DiCe. Because DiCe tumble ^randomly^ and the outcome is predictable, craps is a game. From this we can infer the meaning of the metaphorical term crapshoot—that is, a situation whose outcome is predictable.

  4. Jeff says:

    I was a schizophrenic electrical engineering student forty years ago: absolutely red hot on most of my coursework, but a hot mess when it came to calculus — which becomes a show stopper as enough time goes by. Unfortunately, I started off with a really bad professor who was hard pressed to speak intelligible English; by the end of the semester I had convinced myself that I was incapable of mastering the material, which then became self-fulfilling.

    About five years later found me in the engineering department of a local television station (where I still work today); one of the early conferences on experimental digital video caught my interest, and I wanted to understand the theory more fully. Guess what: that got me back into the dreaded calculus. I wound up going back and taking engineering calculus in summer session — pulling straight As, but more to the point, really understanding the concepts.

    The point I’m making is that for some people, being a certain chronological age doesn’t mean they are prepared developmentally or experientially for a particular curriculum. In my case, history became interesting only after I had lived long enough to develop a sense of perspective; chemistry, which was largely memorized gobbledygook in high school, is far more interesting today and makes far more sense. That’s why I read this blog — and because Derek is able to communicate non-intuitive ideas with clarity and humor. And for that last, I am grateful!

  5. Chrispy says:

    You know who could learn some fundamental chemistry? The people who call themselves biologists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain the relative reactivities of esters vs. amides or what a “greasy” amino acid is or why an enantiomer might be a good control. Somehow chemistry goes rapidly down the rabbit hole of named reactions and the fundamentals, the stuff that should really be intuitive, gets left behind. I don’t care if you can predict the stereochemical outcome of a Diels-Alder reaction, but really everyone working in drug discovery needs to understand the basic properties of organic compounds.

    1. Curious Wavefunction says:

      I was once startled when a director of biology in my old company piped up during a presentation and said that a particular structure shown on the screen was likely to set off red flags because it “looked like a detergent”. That kind of structure awareness among biologists is rare (hell, it’s rare among chemists), but he was also clearly a much more effective communicator because of that knowledge.

    2. Jim says:

      Pot. Kettle. Black. As a biologist, I readily admit that my chemistry is not at the level it should be. However, I have routinely been surprised at how infrequently chemists apply what should be basic chemistry principles to biology. Example: I have repeatedly been asked why a drug would produce variable effects across animals. I learned to answer that question by asking why the yield isn’t the same every time a given reaction is run. I found the the best teams were not necessarily the team members with the broadest knowledge bases, but those that trusted each other to apply their expertise wisely.

    3. Blabla says:

      You know who could learn some fundamental biology? Chemists. I have never met one that actually really understands the problems with cell and animal assays.

    4. Crimso says:

      Come join us biochemists! I make no claim to being a chemist. I have no degrees in chemistry. I have had no biology courses beyond my sophomore year in high school. I got my Ph.D. in a Dept. of Biochemistry (“and Molecular Biology” is now appended to that particular department’s name). How did I end up there? Simple. Chemical engineering. Why study extremely inefficient and enormous chemical processing plants when much more fascinating microscopic self-replicating ones are out there in vast varieties?

  6. Dieter Weber says:

    You can definitely learn something about the fundamentals of chemistry simply by picking up a good book and perhaps trying a few household reactions like baking soda with vinegar etc. Lab techniques are a rather different thing, they are best learned in a lab course.

    How do I know? I learned chemistry as a kid by reading which my mum had in the bookshelf. Somehow it got me hooked! Fortunately I already had enough sense not to try most of the stuff. I learned lab techniques much later at school and in university.

    1. Oliver H says:

      Hooked? On Hollemann-Wiberg? *shudder* Having studied and learned both in English and my native German, I always had the experience that traditionally, professors in the german language areas perceived science to be a serious business that needed to be presented with a certain gravitas. Which all too often ends up making science textbooks barely readable – or, as Edgar Allan Poe would put it “Es lässt sich nicht lesen”. Conversely, American textbooks I found to be downright exciting to read. Wish I could remember what my favorite book was called, it’s unfortunately boxed up right now with so many others…

  7. JimM says:

    My high school had a chemistry medal and I won it, I got an 800 on the chemistry achievement test, a 5 on the AP exam, and the highest score in the state on a chemistry scholarship test sponsored by a state technical college.

    But my chemistry teacher wrote in my annual that “I foresee a great future for you in chemistry . . . if you can manage to stay out of the lab”; and he was right about the necessity of staying out of the lab, at least. Our AP class met for 2 hr. each day, one hour for lecture and one for lab work, and I would often stay as long as 2 more hours trying to finish experiments that everyone else had accomplished in no more than half an hour — I must have done the (comparatively straightforward) ‘clock reaction’ 50 times to get 3 successful completions, for example.

    When I attended my first lab section after enrolling in organic chemistry as a college freshman, it soon became absolutely clear that this was a mountain I could not climb.

  8. Mol Biologist says:

    I learned as a kid that books are for education vs blogs are paid source to form opinions. “There is no correlation between the percentage of net revenue spent on R&D and the innovative capabilities of an organization – none. It is born from struggle. If you do not like or learn how to struggle just pretend you have a knowledge about a Diels-Alder reaction.
    We have a false belief that innovation happens with lots of money and resources. In fact, the opposite is true. It is a lack of resources, it is a lack of money, it is after something goes wrong are we able to truly innovate – to truly re-imagine how something could work. This is why large companies rarely produce truly innovative products – because they have the money and resources to build anything they want. The problem is, the things they want aren’t that innovative because they weren’t hindered or forced to find new ways. Small businesses, in comparison, are where big ideas happen. Slim on money and resources, they figure out how to make something work with what they have.

  9. Hap says:

    *cough* Bell Labs *cough* *cough* Xerox Parc *cough* *cough*

    Having no money doesn’t always mean you develop something good – sometimes (a lot of the time, it seems), you sell what you have and hope it’s good, or you focus on what you can do. There is probably survivor bias there, too (if a little company gets big, it’s because it had something that none of the bigger companies around were able or willing to make). It seems analogous to the “resource-poor labs develop better research”, which was debated here ( a lot and didn’t really provide an unambiguous answer (probably because there wasn’t one).

  10. John Wayne says:

    I think that Mol Biologist’s comments can be true in certain industries, but it doesn’t apply very well within medical research. Let’s pretend you have a group of people who want to discover medical interventions that will help with Alzheimer’s Disease or pancreatic cancer. There aren’t a bunch of methods that work you can fall back on. Additionally, putting them in a resource poor environment isn’t going to do them any favors. They will work on the things they can afford to do in the time you give them. Trust me, I’ve been there; that doesn’t work very often either.

    I love small companies because I am a generalist. While these companies are great, they do have to get their current and future money from somebody. Trust me, it is hard to be really creative when you are chasing what the business development people say are the popular targets these days. Now, if you were wealthy enough to have a small team and no other cooks in the kitchen, that may be something.

    Alternately, we can quit this research game and figure out how to design apps our kids will get addicted to. Nah, not hard enough ….

  11. Not-a-chemist says:

    I’ve always been impressed by how chemists can instantly call up molecular structures from the name, e.g. Alice says “mercury azide” and Bob says “Run away!” because he knows there are a bazillion N atoms just aching to be free and an explosion is imminent.

    I’d also advise any new learner of chemistry to be careful about searching for how to make explosives. What used to pass for adolescent hi-jinks (blowing up the garden shed and searing off your little brother’s eyebrows) is going to be radically misinterpreted in this day and age. Sad.

  12. peptoid says:

    I almost dropped chemistry altogether in my first year. I wasn’t understanding the coursework, despite having knowledgeable and enthusiastic teachers, and couldn’t see where I fit in terms of the breadth of chemistry as a practice. This changed when I was (reluctantly) given an undergraduate research project. The postdoc looking after me showed me what real labwork is like, how to apply the concepts and what I would and wouldn’t end up using in a real lab. Five years on, I’m working towards a PhD, in the same lab, doing similar reactions (peptide synthesis) for the same supervisor. Without that practical experience and the psychological reward of ‘making something’ instead of only ‘thinking about something’, I doubt I would have pursued chemistry and would have become an electrician instead.

  13. HT says:

    Not sure about being a chemist but …
    ‘Computational and theoretical chemists are the first group that come to mind, and no one would (or should) dispute that they’re “real chemists”.’
    I would be surprised if computational and theoretical biologists are considered real biologists by their peers in general. Those that produce results that could be readily be applied in real-life situations (or at least amenable to hypothesis testing) are few and highly respected. For the rest, we treat them more like mathematicians, i.e. out of touch with the biological reality.

  14. Terrana says:

    I proudly count myself as part of the first group. I am not a chemist, and I am not likely to ever become one, but I am interested in learning about chemistry. That’s why I read this blog, and why I look things up when I don’t understand them, even though I don’t think I’ve ever run a non-trivial reaction myself.

    I wouldn’t presume to tell a real chemist their business. But I’d quite like to hear them tell it themselves.

  15. Mol Biologist says:

    Finnegans Wake is a novel written by Irish writer James Joyce with each phrase is puzzle. Among other is such phrases: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” The word “quark” was introduced into physics world by remarkable American physicist Gell-Mann with later interest in linguistics.

    The bottom line if you grew up among physicists and chemists you not only acquire the habit of thinking, but also will be looking for beautiful and simple explanation your own experiments.
    But sometimes it is hard to refuse a joke (botanical or chemical) in the form of puzzle. Isn’t it, Derek?

  16. Anon says:

    How to distinguish between “contributing to discussions” and someone like the Food Babe? There has to be some line drawn where the contributions are credible, but also leave freedom to challenge conventional thinking. A line must be drawn somewhere, but where? Or is it really just shades of grey proportional to consensus thinking?

    1. Hap says:

      The presence or absence of intellectual honesty, I think, is the flag. If you don’t know stuff but are willing to be honest about what you do know and how you got there, people ought to give you leeway. If you don’t know or care enough to check your own ideas and to be skeptical about them, people will start to get cranky. If you ignore evidence you don’t like and trumpet the same ideas over and over without caring about their factual content, people can safely assume that the factual content is not relevant to what you have to say and discount your opinions accordingly.

      People hold opinions for lots of reasons, and argue about them sometimes because other things are really being debated underneath them. No one’s immune. If you can’t be honest, with yourself and others, then people won’t know when you are being truthful and when not, and they will have to take too much time figuring out what’s true and false in what you say, and will probably (deservedly) ignore you instead. This also happens sometimes when you don’t know whether what you saying is true and don’t check it enough – even if you aren’t trying to mislead, people can’t rely on what you say. Trying to be honest and check your assumptions are methods in discussions and arguments to save time in trying to find things out and to keep people from misleading themselves.

      1. Anon says:

        So in summary, an unbiased search for the truth. Sounds good to me.

        1. Hap says:

          As best as one can – everyone is biased. (One of the student papers where I went always started their opinions with “everyone is biased” (roughly), but used it as a license to indulge their opinions without resort to contrary ones or evidence. One wants to avoid that.) The safeties of science and logic are there to try to keep you from fooling yourself too badly. People ignore them at their and your peril.

  17. Morten G says:

    – Covalent bonds
    – Hydrogen bonds and ionic interactions
    – Van der Waals, phase self-association leading to lower energy
    – Polar phases, non-polar phases, fluoride phases, amphiphiles
    – Reactions (big one, I know)
    – pH (chemists often seem to struggle with this though)
    Then you can veer into various fun things like fluorescence, spectroscopy, NMR, band-gaps, etc

  18. steve says:

    Tell him it’s like cooking. You can read Julia Child or James Beard all you want but if you’ve never cracked an egg you’re not a cook.

  19. Daen de Leon says:

    My experience was broadly similar. Until my early 30s, I’d never set foot in a lab. I got thrown in the deep end as a cheminformaticist and bioinformatician, mostly because I had a programming & maths background — the chemical & biological understanding came somewhat later.

    One thing that chemists (at least the ones I have come across) seem to be rather good at is explaining things, and I learned a lot from watching & asking questions, if not actually doing. So I think you can define a category of people, often with software backgrounds, which could be labeled para-chemists (or perhaps ortho- or meta-chemists 🙂 )

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