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.