It’s Elemental: The Hidden Chemistry in Everything
I want to start this book by admitting something.
I am a nerd about chemistry.
I’m a chemist, my husband, Josh, is a chemist, and most of our friends
are scientists too. (Not all, but nobody’s perfect.) I’ve been known to hold
casual conversations about quarks. Josh and I have discussed the parameters
of a Nobel Prize–winning experiment on date night and had an intense
argument about which element on the periodic table is the best—it’s
But I know not everybody is like that.
In fact, most people aren’t.
Chemistry can be hard to understand. Heck, science in general can be
difficult to comprehend. There are so many terms and rules, and everything
can seem so incredibly complex. That’s especially true with chemistry
because we can’t see any of it.
In biology, you can dissect a frog.
A teacher can show you the properties of physics, like acceleration, in
But I can’t just hand you an atom.
Even my friends and family don’t get what I do sometimes. My BFF,
Chelsea, is the perfect example. She’s super smart, understands science in
general and even has a job that’s related to chemistry as a jeweler. But
Chelsea never “got” what was going on in our high school chemistry
classes. While I was enthralled, Chelsea felt simultaneously bored and lost.
And when we were sophomores in high school, I simply didn’t understand
how she felt.
But today, I totally get it. I see students like Chelsea nearly every day.
As a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, I teach a class called
Chemistry in Context. It’s an introductory course intended for students who
will probably never take another science class ever again. Imagine an
English major trying to take the easiest science course she can get a C in,
and you’ll have it.
One year, on the very first day of class, a student asked me a question
about quarks, and I ended up in a long tangent about subatomic particles in
front of five hundred brand-new freshmen. Some students were trying to
frantically take notes while a bunch were just staring at me in various states
of shock and fear. Others had resorted to filming me on their phones. Two
girls were literally clutching each other.
The whole incident would have been funny if I hadn’t freaked out
hundreds of students who had decided to give chemistry (and me) a chance.
Most of the students had no idea what I was talking about. I might as well
have been speaking Klingon. I’m sure this situation only reinforced the
myth that science is boring and impossible to understand.
That’s because words matter—especially when we talk about science.
When I first got my PhD, I emailed my mom a copy of my dissertation.
Minutes later, she called me. Before I could even say hello, I heard her
laughing and didn’t understand why. Did I send the wrong attachment? Had
she just watched a silly cat video? Did she butt-dial me?
Finally she sputtered, “Katie, I don’t know what any of these words
mean! What’s an ass…napthyl?” My mom was laughing so hard that she
couldn’t say anything else. I was so confused. I had told her what my
research was about. Why wasn’t she getting it?
Then I opened the document and read the first line:
The syntheses and catalytic properties of six new 1,2-acenaphthenyl
N-heterocyclic carbene-supported palladium(II) catalysts are presented.
The acenaphthenyl carbene can be prepared using either mesityl or
1,2-diisopropyl N-aryl substituents.
In that moment, I understood—what my mom read, what my students
heard, and what Chelsea had felt. My mom had no idea what I meant by
1,2-acenaphthenyl N-heterocyclic carbene-supported palladium(II)
And frankly, she didn’t need to. (In case you’re wondering, it’s a type of
catalyst used in reactions needed to make pharmaceutical drugs.)
Chemistry is so cool, so freaking awesome, but often chemists (including
me) talk about the science in a way that loses everybody without a PhD. In
this book, I’m going to do the opposite. My mission is to show my mom—
and all of you—why I am passionate about chemistry. Why it’s amazing,
why it’s super exciting, and why you should love it too.
I promise there will be no discussion of quarks or even a description of
the scientific method. But by the time you finish reading, you’ll have an
understanding of basic chemistry, and you’ll see that chemistry is hidden in
everything, from the shampoo you use on your hair in the morning to that
beautiful sunset at night. It’s in the air you breathe, which is something that
you literally cannot live without. It’s in everything you touch and encounter
every single day. And the more you know about it, the more you can
appreciate the world we live in.
Just look around yourself right now. Everything you see is matter. All
matter is comprised of molecules, and molecules are made of atoms.
The ink on this page is a molecule that has been absorbed into the fibers
of the paper, and the glue in the binding is just a fancy molecule that binds
to both the paper and the cover. Chemistry is everywhere and in every
In the first four chapters, I’ll explain what you need to know in order to
understand the basics of atoms, molecules, and chemical reactions. You can
think of this as Chemistry 101, or a recap of what your teacher was talking
about while you were writing notes to your bestie in tenth grade. (BTW, I
promise that by the end of this section, you’ll finally “get” atoms.)
The second part of the book is about chemistry in everyday life, from the
coffee you make in the morning to the wine you drink at night. In between,
we’ll do all sorts of fun things: bake, clean, cook, work out, even go to the
beach. Along the way you’ll learn about the chemistry at work in your cell
phones, sunscreen, and in fabrics, among other stuff you use every day.
I wrote this book with the hope that you’ll not only “get” chemistry but
feel excited about it. I hope you’ll discover something new and unexpected
about the world around you—and that you’ll want to share what you learn
with your partner, your children, your friends, your colleagues at
work…even strangers at happy hour.
Because I strongly believe that we can make the world a better place with
a love of science.
Let’s get started
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