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Chemistry - It's Elemental

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What better time than National Chemistry Week (October 16-22) in the International Year of Chemistry (2011) to consider the fundamental role of chemistry in our lives?

Many, if not most, of us take chemistry for granted and, after that class in high school or college, tend not to give it another thought. But chemistry is basic to the comfort, safety, and maintenance of our daily lives. This is illustrated in The Joy of Chemistry: the amazing science of familiar things by Cathy Cobb and Monty L. Fetterolf. From the fascination of fall foliage and fireworks to the functioning of smoke detectors and computers, to the fundamentals of digestion, they demonstrate the principles of chemistry entertainingly in everyday terms.

Simon Quellen Field also dispels the notion that chemistry is the private realm of "nerds with masking tape on their eyeglasses". He explains Why There’s Antifreeze in Your Toothpaste: the chemistry of household ingredients and demystifies questions about common products we use daily. Did you know that table salt is more than a flavoring and can be used as a binding agent, and even a thickener to change the viscosity of shampoo?

Chemistry in History

Chemistry has played an important and sometimes not-so-subtle role in history. Could the failure of Napoleon’s 1812 western European campaign be explained by something as tiny as a button?  When exposed to very low temperatures, tin starts to crumble into powder. In Napoleon’s regiments, everything from greatcoats to trousers was fastened with tin buttons. Were the soldiers of the Grand Armee fatally weakened by the brutal Russian winter when their uniforms fell apart?  If tin had different cold-bearing properties, might history have taken a very different turn?  That is only one of the intriguing questions contemplated by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson in Napoleon’s Buttons: how 17 molecules changed history.

Sam Kean also brings chemistry to dramatic life in The Disappearing Spoon and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements. He demonstrates that the periodic table is a treasure trove of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. His tales follow each element as they influence history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, and the lives of the frequently mad scientists who discovered them. The disappearing spoon of the title refers to a classic scientist’s prank:  Though solid at room temperature, gallium is a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees. The prankster fashions gallium spoons, serves them with tea, and watches with glee as guests recoil when the Earl Grey makes their spoons disappear.

Jamestown is considered the birthplace of American chemical enterprise. There, the promise of chemistry arose in the workings of cleaning agents, glass, pharmaceuticals, and metallurgy, propelled upward by the demands of commerce. Jamestown has been named a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Read more about the role of chemistry in trade in Jamestown: the buried truth by William Kelso.

Tools for Students

Have to write a paper for a chemistry class?  Let Credo help with your research. Look under Electronic Resources on our website, choose Credo, and find a wide array of material for your topic. Try the concept map, which locates chemistry in relation to other science fields and subfields. Find articles, reference sources, images, and other media arranged for your exploration.

Preparing for a test?  Use Learn-A-Test’s Chemistry Review in 20 Minutes a Day, or Chemistry Skills Improvement Practice, a 60-question practice test to evaluate your knowledge and identify areas for further study.

Curious about a chemistry career?  Find out what range of jobs use chemistry, what those jobs involve on a day-to-day basis, what education is required, who employs chemists, what they pay starting out, how to advance, what the future demand for that field will be. Ferguson’s Career Guidance Center is full of interesting information.

Nobel Prize

Newsbank has articles about the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, announced October 5, to Dan Shechtman. Shechtman, an Israeli scientist, discovered quasicrystals in 1982, for which he was kicked out of his research group because scientists did not believe such things could exist. He persevered, however, and is now finally recognized for the validity of his research. What are quasicrystals?  Find out using Newsbank or Credo.

Marie Curie, one of the most famous Nobel winners, received the Chemistry prize 100 years ago in 1911 for her discovery of radium and polonium. Read a biography of this dedicated scientist to gain insight into the significance of her work for nuclear research and for opportunities for women in our own century.

Mysterious Solutions

Do not pass up the delightful mystery series starring Flavia de Luce, the 11-year-old aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, she must exonerate her father of murder. This is followed by The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag and A Red Herring without Mustard. Chemistry is painlessly integral to the tales in this wickedly brilliant series set around a decaying English country house in the 1950s. Adults will most appreciate the humor but younger readers will enjoy these also.

For more about chemistry, from the routine to the remarkable, visit or call 988-2541.

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