Why those molecules matter

I remember that sense of power and awe I felt the first time I put on a lab coat and entered the chemistry lab in school. It was as though I had been given the key to a magical realm, one where substances could be made and taken apart, where the mystery of smell and taste and colour would be unraveled. Although I gave up the coat and the Bunsen burner for other tools, my fascination for this particular science has not quite faded. While the potential of organic chemistry – the stuff of life – continues to feed dreams, the precision offered by physical chemistry warms the mathematically inclined, and the exciting possibilities of inorganic materials generate new designs every day. In actuality, these divisions do not really matter any more in the practice and the study of chemistry. The overlaps across branches of the discipline and the interactions with other disciplines have made it necessary for students to understand the breadth and depth of the subject and its relationship to other areas of knowledge. This has also made it possible for chemistry to open itself to different ways of understanding, and make its study attractive – and less formidable – to those who come to it through biology, geology, or medicine.

Indeed, precisely because of this crucial connection with other bodies of knowledge, it is important for us to understand chemistry, even if we do not intend to specialize in it. Our approach to energy use, food consumption, resource management, all depend on how much we understand of the interactions of substances at different levels and under different conditions. Knowing how our body breaks down different foods can make us more conscious of what we eat, while knowledge of how fuels break down can help us manage our vehicles more efficiently. Chemistry not only governs science, it also governs life in the minutest of ways.

The articles in this issue of Teacher Plus are wide-ranging, tackling both the mundane and the mystical, the theoretical and the practical, the core and the periphery of what Prof D Balasubramanian calls “mother of all sciences”. Our contributors include professional scientists, academicians, parents, practicing teachers, and of course, students. We had help in compiling this issue from two long-time readers and contributors, Yasmin Jayathirtha and Vijayalakshmi Nandakumar, who have curated an eclectic collection of viewpoints, experiences, and ideas that should appeal to both teachers of chemistry and others interested in science and education.