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Fundamentals should be first

[mk1]To the Editor:

I am greatly disturbed by James T. Someren's recent response to the column by Adam Kao ["On learning chemistry," Nov. 5]. I feel that I have a unique student perspective on the chemistry department at MIT, as I have been involved with this department for nearly eight years.

I believe that Kao raised an interesting and troubling issue in his column. Should students be taught basic principles, and be allowed to derive their consequences and applications, or should the applications be taught, with the implicit assumption that the underlying theory will become apparent? I agree with Kao, and I think that a majority of the MIT community would also agree, that basic principles come first.

In steeping his letter with sarcasm, Someren has forgotten some basic principles he should know. It is generally agreed that scientific theories are based upon a certain minimum set of facts. He was "forced to memorize long lists of pKa's and bond energies," as I was in 1978. Yet, this minimum set of information allows a good chemist to make extremely general and far-reaching conclusions about many physical, chemical, and biological processes. I have no pity for Someren's having to learn the atoms of the Periodic Table -- the 105 elements are the bread and butter of a chemist. To not know them is like a mathematician not knowing geometry, algebra, and analysis!

Like Someren, I am not familiar with the content of 5.11, other than the general impression that the Institute has decided that freshmen should learn general chemistry (5.11 used to be 5.40) before organic chemistry (previously 5.41, now 5.12). Kao's first-hand account of the course, if it is accurate (and let those who think it is not come forth!), leads me to state that it is not the kind of chemistry I would want to learn either.

I think that Someren's chastisement of Kao for "mouthing off" is entirely inappropriate. By letting the community know his views on 5.11, Kao has done us all a service. Just because a class is required for graduation does not mean that the criticisms of the class should not be aired publicly.

Finally, Kao appears to be an intelligent person by realizing, as a freshman, that basic principles are much more important than applications. I have no doubt that Kao is quite up to the challenge of the entire chemistry curriculum. I believe that Someren demeans only himself by issuing such a challenge in the penultimate paragraph of his letter.

David W. Borhani G->