September 13, 2009
Chemistry Teaching Musings (III)
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
I decided that Microsoft Excel is too technologically advanced for me. (Hey–technology isn’t my cup of chai [tea]. I’ll own you at cleaning the chemistry lab….) So I was inspired to write this post after writing about C (graphite) and C (diamond) in my last post.
EDIT: SPIDERMAN! YOU BETTER READ THE WHOLE POST.
FYI: C (graphite) is Carbon in graphite form (the molecular structure resembles that of polygon-like sheets layered on each other) and C (diamond) is Carbon in diamond form (the molecular structure has tight diamond oriented bond structures).
This post may be a bit more Islamic teaching than public school teaching, but I’ll try to touch a little on both.
I am not a teacher, but having extensive experience as a student, I know that one very important part about teaching is not only to convey things in an easy and organized manner, but to somehow make the subject matter relevant. To make the subject matter relevant, I have to make kids appreciate it. In this case, the subject matter is chemistry. (Wow, I got my work cut out for me.) =)
Seeing as I am probably going to end up teaching General Chemistry (gen chem) or something similar/simpler, I guess all my examples should be of that understanding, if not, simpler.
1. The Periodic Table.
—I am assuming you, reader, at least have heard of the periodic table. The big irregular rectangle-like chart with a long rectangle underneath it–yeah, that’s the one. Well in case you don’t know, the Periodic Table organizes elements the world is composed of by atomic number, or how many protons are in it. So the first element on the top left is Hydrogen (H) and the next one on the way top right row is Helium (He). Hydrogen (H) has one proton, Helium (He) has two protons. Then you go the next row and start on the left with Lithium (Li) which has 3 protons and so on. The other beauty of this table is that if you look at how the columns are arranged, (while keeping proton order consistent!) each element in the same column (a.k.a group) has the same number of electrons in it’s outer most shell. So Lithium (Li), Sodium (Na), and Potassium (K) all have one electron in their outer most shell. While the number of protons increase across a row and down a column and each column has the same number of outer electrons in the same column, a lot of physical and chemical properties are typically the same in each particular column. You would notice that in the first column, Lithium (Li), Sodium (Na) and Potassium (K) all are metals. They are all so soft that you can cut them with a knife. They all immediately dull when exposed to the air we breathe. They all react ‘vigorously’ (or like nuts) in water and in acids. They tend to burn quickly and make basic solutions. You don’t necessarily need to know what an acid and base are, but the point I am getting at is that there are distinct patterns in how things are arranged in the periodic table. You can learn A LOT about elements just by ***looking*** at the periodic table.
2. How or why should you appreciate this?
—Without this classification system, we wouldn’t know many properties and trends of elements. We wouldn’t know that it is the proton number, not the electron or neutron number, that ultimately determines the difference between two atoms (Like Hydrogen and Helium). We wouldn’t know which elements worked well with other ones and which ones you can put together for medicine and other ones that can potentially be poisonous. We would virtually lose the entire science of pharmacology (the powder that makes up all your pills), most of biology (because chemistry make up the building blocks of life and without a good classification system, we can easily mistake what different life forms are made of or their behavior), and a chunk of physics (because elements that make up compounds have many different physical behaviors that can’t be observed without knowing some basic trends). The computer you are using couldn’t be made because scientists wouldn’t know that silicon, and random d-block elements (i.e. Copper and Titanium) are good for transmitting information in a computer via electrons. (Yeah, all I know is that memory cards use London-dispersion forces to save and transmit information… but we won’t have that conversation now….)
3. How does this relate to appreciating Islam?
—Well, what first comes to mind is surah Rahman the ayah (verse): “The sun and the moon run on their fixed courses (exact) calculated with measured out stages for each.” (Surah Rahman, ayah 5) Also to fast forward in the Surah: “And the heaven He (Allah) has raised high, and He has set up a Balance. In order that you may not transgress (due) balance. And observe the weight with equity and do not make the Balance deficient.” (Surah Rahman, ayahs 7-9) What do these ayahs point out? Precision. Accuracy. And Intelligent Design (Now don’t start pulling out any Christian scholars on me–I am speaking from an Islamic perspective that we believe everything is made perfectly. There is no flaw.) Everything in creation is created in a fixed pattern following a Divine course at Divine pace. Although the sun and moon are different bodies (like elements) they still follow fixed trends (or orbits). What is seen at a molecular level is now amplified at a cosmic one. Everything seems to go in a sort of ‘orbit.’ The electrons around the nucleus. (Which elements of the same column/group have very similar orbit patterns.) Sea of electrons over metallic compounds. People around the Kabah. The moon around the earth. The earth around the sun. The sun orbiting in the galaxy. And whatever is in the physical world is only a shadow of the spiritual world. Like our hearts are orbiting around Allah.
And to even get more specific: I was reading some random organic/biochemistry article (It had so much bio in it… how am I going to be a chemistry teacher… Ya Allah….) and I was reading about amino acids (stuff that make proteins) in the human body. There are two primary types of amino acids–>R configuration and L configuration. To explain it in an elementary way, the difference is that the R configuration have the atoms arrange ‘clockwise’ around the central carbon atom and L configuration have the atoms arranged in a ‘anti-clockwise’ formation around the central carbon atom. Get this: the only amino acids that work in the human body are the L configuration ones. R simply will not work. I found that completely fascinating because we also go anti-clockwise around the Kabah. The earth spins counter-clockwise. If you made a sundial point north, the shadows would move counter-clockwise (old sundials were made pointing south, hence why today’s clocks go ‘clockwise.’) The moon goes around the earth counter-clockwise and the planets go around the sun counter-clockwise. Majority (snail) shell prints spiral counter-clockwise. Math throughout history used graphs and geometric analysis by going counter-clockwise. There is this Divine pattern and consistency that is practiced and even the WAY it is practiced follows a distinct trend. Sound a little familiar? Atoms on the periodic table follow a set of consistency (in most ways) both in physical and chemical properties.
So whether you are a Muslim or not, you can’t deny one thing–the universe is no flaw. Even if you don’t believe there was someone who designed it, you have to admit there is precision, exactness, elegance and beauty in how everything fits *PERFECTLY.*
So I don’t know if I had COMPLETELY strayed off the original topic of this post, but I will try to tie it back: Chemistry is just a bunch of initials, symbols, numbers and arrows if you can’t see it outside of your textbook. Even seeing a bunch of colorful liquids and solids in a lab cannot help you appreciate or understand the complexities of chemistry. Just like history, biology, math and literature: you must THINK to appreciate it. But I think chemistry is a little harder to appreciate just because you can’t see atoms with your bare eyes. But I think that is part of what makes it so beautiful: the idea that perfection, exactness and preciseness can exist at such a level that we cannot see with our eyes. In fact, that perfection is in our eyes but we just don’t realize it. And Islam completely reinforces this idea of all these complexities within complex things and how after all seen, said and done, it is still… perfect. So I guess I should ask you, “Which of the favors/blessings of Your Lord do you deny?” (Surah Rahman, Ayah 13)
I don’t know–I just wanted to stick up for all chemistry teachers out there when we say: “Chemistry… ROCKS.” =)