I’m going to do something somewhat unusual for this blog; I’m going to talk about work. Work work. The stuff I actually do. The stuff I’ve been reared from birth (it seems) to actually do with my life. (the title I’ve given this should become clear later, skip to the bottom if chemistry and occasional sexual analogy doesn’t interest you)
I have a problem. It’s a problem I’ve been hitting with a hammer for about 5 years now. While it’s a little complicated to get into it, I’ll try and distil it down to something readable without any prior knowledge.
One of the core aims in chemistry is to understand the mechanism of a chemical reaction; that is, when you go from A to B, to not just understand what A and B are, but to describe in as much detail as possible how you get there and through what steps, and which intermediates.
So I have A and B, and I have two potential pathways, 1 and 2. Please forgive the shittier-than-usual-ness of these diagrams, I am stuck without a functioning PC and graphics tablet, and have resorted to MS Paint and a mouse – still, it’s more effort than a Buzzfeed article.
Actually, this is a little abstract, so I’ll go into a little more detail because I damn-well can and people seem to think chemistry is all blowing shit up and poisoning people (that’s only 60% of the time). Not too much detail, however, since this is a) unpublished work and b) potentially industrially sensitive.
I’m looking at how a particular metal (and associated ligands), let’s call her “M“, activates a particular substrate, let’s call her “S“, while under the influence of light. “Activate” here, just means “turn into a more reactive substance”. You can sit Ms. S and Ms. M together as long as you like, but they’ll do nothing – but shine some light on it, and BOOM, some kinky chemical lesbianism occurs! (that’s a technical term, by the way) Add in another chemical at this point and you can readily convert Ms. S into something else – something that wouldn’t happen without Ms. M and some light. All disturbingly erotic, I know. And no, this is not allegorical.
In pathway 1 we have M losing a carbonyl (CO, carbon monoxide, the same stuff that kills you in your sleep if you don’t check your boiler once a year) group in the presence of ultraviolet light to form an higher energy intermediate that lacks this CO. Now, chemistry is a game; get to the lowest energy and you win the game. So if you increase the energy of, say, M by using light (which is a sort of “cheat” in the game) then the higher energy intermediate is unstable; it will stabilise itself by latching on to whatever you give it that lowers the energy. It lowers in energy to win the game, and just so happens to produce something you want in the process rather than turning to black gunk (the usual end-product of organometallic chemistry). In pathway 2, much the same happens except no loss of CO; the entire thing, Ms. M, with all her
sex toys ligands attached, just goes into an excited electronic state. “Excited state” in this case means that only the electrons, rather than the whole atoms themselves, have rearranged into a higher energy state. But the principle is the same; this highly excited M lowers the energy by activating the substrate, S.
And evidence for either pathway 1 or pathway 2 is contradictory. I can’t figure it out. The odds are it will take someone way smarter than me and with far more time to figure it out (and funding, of course, as Ms. M is an expensive little madam and not some cheap slut like copper or nickel). And that’s if it’s even possible to really sift through the hellish amount of conflicting data on this one single reaction.
In favour of pathway 1 we have the fact that the reaction is slowed down when there is excess CO about, in accordance with Le Chatelier’s principle (oh, just Google it, not that you will). Yet in favour of pathway 2 we have some good kinetic evidence. In favour of 1 we have some fast spectroscopy measurements showing CO loss under light. But in favour of 2, the isomer distribution in the final products isn’t what we’d expect from CO extrusion and recombination. Although some energy calculations suggests this is expected because the isomers we don’t see disappear too quickly to be seen – although I think those calculations are bullshit because, and no offence to the authors of this one, if you’re using B3LYP/6-31G calculations on organometallic complexes by evaluating only hybrid density functionals against a few different relativistic core pseudopotentials without calibrating your transition state free energies to known empirical data you’re a fucking…
Then there’s how the evidence conflicts depending on whether you do it with this or that or at what temperature – oh, and my own computational calculations that suggest that, for reasons I don’t want to go into, that it’s both (one after each other).
Although in a fairly narrow field, this is still a significant scientific disagreement. There’s been head-scratching, there have been arguments, there’s been betting and mind-changing – right now I’m not even going to call it. It’s up in the air. We literally have no fucking idea about what the answer to this little problem is and the evidence is all over the place.
So, why don’t we see people declaring that chemistry is bullshit?
Where are the cranks wanting to throw out atoms (okay, Dewey Larson and Archimedes Plutonium excepted…) and saying that it’s all folly?
Why don’t creationists latch onto this as proof that chemistry is flawed ergo the Earth is 6,000 years old?
You might think that this is because chemistry has nothing to say about the origins of the earth nor evolution. But you’d be wrong. Chemistry underpins the laws that governs genetics – how the genome functions at a biochemical level is all about this. Chemistry is what stops Jesus turning water into wine – and a little bit of nuclear physics suggests such a change would produce a catastrophic amount of energy that would have turned Cana into a crater. Chemistry governs the rates and qualities of rock and mineral formation that preclude even the notion that a flood 4,000 years ago covered the entire world in water. The mere properties of water – which are chemical – can prove such an event didn’t happen.
In short, far from being irrelevant, it would be very much in the interests of creationists to debunk chemistry. In fact, it would be very much within the interests of any crank to debunk all of chemistry. Homeopaths, climate change deniers, anti-vaccine twats; the lot of them.
And since a major modus operandi of the crank is to latch onto minor disagreements in science in order to declare the entire discipline to be false, why wouldn’t they take the one I just handed them above? Why wouldn’t any particular crank jump upon that disagreement and extremely difficult problem (I’ve barely scratched the surface of it there, and that’s only one problem I’ve had) to say chemistry is bullshit? Hey, after all, those silly little scientists can’t agree on a single simple detail like that, they mustn’t be very trustworthy or very clever!
I doubt anyone would declare chemistry to be false because of the above. Psychics, mediums, climate change deniers, moon landing hoaxers, grassy knoll enthusiasts, homeopaths, creationists, Scientologists, faith healers, intelligent design proponents, exorcists, bitcoin miners (okay, perhaps not) and Thor knows who else, will all remain very happy with the idea of atoms, molecules, bonds, thermodynamics, kinetics, electrons, photochemistry and so on and so forth until I’ve written out a contents page from an undergraduate textbook. They won’t see it as something for them. They’ll be ‘meh’ at most – never mind that their ideologies, philosophies and crank hypotheses often require that chemistry be overturned and their usual method is to jump on tiny little flaws.
But why? Why isn’t chemistry something they want to discredit? It’s no more different to the disagreements in evolutionary biology, genetics, palaeontology and geology used by creationists to self-justify their position. Or the disagreements in climatology used by denialists. Or the disagreements and open problems in epidemiology used to justify anti-vaccine twats. Hey, biology gets a ton of attention; why not its basis?
I imagine people will think it’s because they’re not qualified to discuss the chemical conundrum above because of a lack of knowledge or the lack of qualification.
Which would lead us to a very important question; why the hell is it okay for Ken Ham to debate Bill Nye on evolution?