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On learning chemistry

Look, I don't hate chemistry. Really. I believe it is useful to learn chemistry. I believe chemistry affects many other disciplines. (To be fair, every discipline affects many others.) I even believe that chemistry can be a fun, enjoyable subject. But "can be" is far from "will be."

Take 5.11, Principles of Chemical Science. I can't figure out what 5.11 is teaching, or what I'm supposed to learn. There has been no unity in the class, no sense of direction. When I decided to take the class (rather than solid-state chemistry, 3.091) it was because I wanted to get an overview of the underlying principles of chemistry. I wanted to learn to think like a chemist.

And what did I get? I got a rotten textbook, filled with pretty pictures and carefully explained details but lacking substance and clarity. I got a book that chemistry majors view with contempt, a book filled with trivia, that in trying to describe everything explains nothing. I got "photoelectron spectroscopy," an obscure and limited experimental technique -- a shining example of a real-world application but an abysmal example of a unifying concept. My tutor said it was important, "because it will be on the test."

I got homework problems assigned from the same book, with the same faults. I got questions that required no thinking, no understanding, only a quick flip to the corresponding example in the text, then a careful transcription with a few F's changed to Cl's. I got questions that told me cute but irrelevant facts about aspirin, and then set me the herculean task of counting the carbons in the empirical formula.

I got questions involving the prevailing prices of platinum according to the precious metals quotes in The Boston Globe or The New York Times. I got questions where figuring out the English was harder than figuring out the chemistry. I got a test whose writers thought it was important for me to memorize the wavelength of red light, the internuclear separation of atoms in platinum, the first ionization energy of lithium, photoelectron spectroscopy.

What is the purpose of all this? Why are we buried under a blizzard of detail, trivial facts that are unconnected and out of context? What are we supposed to learn? Are we supposed to act like computers, mindlessly sucking up data with nary a thought as to how it all fits together? Real world applications are all well and good, but they cannot be the central focus of any rational course.

All the applications in the world will only confuse us if we do not understand the theory. If we learn a thousand applications, we will remember only one. But if we learn one vital principle, we can find a thousand applications ourselves. The principles come first. Laws, equations, step-by-step chains of reasoning. Not vague generalities and crystal clear inconsequentials. Education is supposed to help us think, reason, deduce. And that's what I came here to learn. I am not paying $5500 a term so that I can memorize things. And I don't enjoy games like Trivial Pursuit.

Chemistry can be fun. Five minutes with a model set will convince anyone of that. But chemistry can also be boring as hell. Five minutes in a rotten course has convinced me of that. What kind of chemistry do we want to teach here?

Maybe not the kind I want to learn.