Chemistry: A Molecular Approach (4th Edition)
To the Student
As you begin this course, I invite you to think about your reasons for enrolling in it. Why are you taking general chemistry? More generally, why are you pursuing a college education? If you are like most college students taking general chemistry, part of your answer is probably that this course is required for your major and that you are pursuing a college education so you can get a good job some day. Although these are good reasons, I would like to suggest a better one. I think the primary reason for your education is to prepare you to live a good life. You should understand chemistry—not for what it can get you—but for what it can do to you. Understanding chemistry, I believe, is an important source of happiness and fulfillment. Let me explain.
Understanding chemistry helps you to live life to its fullest for two basic reasons. The first is intrinsic: through an understanding of chemistry, you gain a powerful appreciation for just how rich and extraordinary the world really is. The second reason is extrinsic: understanding chemistry makes you a more informed citizen—it allows you to engage with many of the issues of our day. In other words, understanding chemistry makes you a deeper and richer person and makes your country and the world a better place to live. These reasons have been the foundation of education from the very beginnings of civilization.
How does chemistry help prepare you for a rich life and conscientious citizenship? Let me explain with two examples. My first one comes from the very first page of Chapter 1 of this book. There, I ask the following question: What is the most important idea in all of scientific knowledge? My answer to that question is this: the behavior of matter is determined by the properties of molecules and atoms.
That simple statement is the reason I love chemistry. We humans have been able to study the substances that compose the world around us and explain their behavior by reference to particles so small that they can hardly be imagined. If you have never realized the remarkable sensitivity of the world we can see to the world we cannot, you have missed out on a fundamental truth about our universe. To have never encountered this truth is like never having read a play by Shakespeare or seen a sculpture by Michelangelo—or, for that matter, like never having discovered that the world is round. It robs you of an amazing and unforgettable experience of the world and the human ability to understand it.
My second example demonstrates how science literacy helps you to be a better citizen. Although I am largely sympathetic to the environmental movement, a lack of science literacy within some sectors of that movement and the resulting anti-environmental backlash create confusion that impedes real progress and opens the door to what could be misinformed policies. For example, I have heard conservative pundits say that volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide—the most significant greenhouse gas—than does petroleum combustion. I have also heard a liberal environmentalist say that we have to stop using hairspray because it is causing holes in the ozone layer that will lead to global warming. Well, the claim about volcanoes emitting more carbon dioxide than petroleum combustion can be refuted by the basic tools you will learn to use in Chapter 4 of this book. We can easily show that volcanoes emit only 1/50th as much carbon dioxide as petroleum combustion. As for hairspray depleting the ozone layer and thereby leading to global warming, the chlorofluorocarbons that deplete ozone have been banned from hairspray since 1978, and ozone depletion has nothing to do with global warming anyway. People with special interests or axes to grind can conveniently distort the truth before an ill-informed public, which is why we all need to be knowledgeable.
So this is why I think you should take this course. Not just to satisfy the requirement for your major, and not just to get a good job some day, but to help you to lead a fuller life and to make the world a little better for everyone. I wish you the best as you embark on the journey to understand the world around you at the molecular level. The rewards are well worth the effort.
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