catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 17 :: 2011.09.30 — 2011.10.13


Organic chemistry

Or no man is a noble gas

I’m beginning a class this semester in organic chemistry. When I embarked upon my second university career in the sciences, I never dreamed that my life would be so enriched by the study of things like calculus, physics and chemistry. I looked on these subjects as stepping stones on my way to a new career or, more often, obstacles on that path. What I encountered was an incredible new understanding of the world around me, in all its physical properties, subatomic intricacies and the mathematical formulae that relate to and describe so many things around us.

In the past few days, I’ve begun to think about carbon. The element is all around us and in us, and makes up such diverse things as our exhalations, the pencils we write with, the gas in our cars, and a much-desired shiny rock. When we talk about organic chemistry, we begin with carbon. All of the organic molecules that make up living things (plants, bacteria, sloths and me) contain carbon. It is, literally, the stuff of life. It’s no accident that carbon forms the backbone of organic molecules. The specific structural properties of the atom make it the ideal candidate to form the complex compounds that we’re made of. Anyone who’s taken a certain amount of chemistry realizes that the special thing about carbon is its ability to form bonds. Of all the elements, carbon is the loneliest. While most metals form compounds by donating their electrons and hanging out in close proximity to other elements, and most other non-metals prefer to form bonds with only one or two other species, carbon craves connections. Its bonds bring it into contact with as many as four other species at a time, and often with many others of its own kind as well. 

You may see where I am going with this analogy, or you may wonder why on earth I’m blithering on about atoms. The simple fact is, carbon is the stuff of life because of its ability to connect with the world around it. Humanity is the same. We are uniquely designed to form connections (relationships) with people all around us. We form complex compounds (communities) that, in turn, make up larger communities, and are able to have great impacts on the other people and communities around us. Some of us prefer to think of ourselves like the elements that don’t need anyone except our own kind, forming little couples like the diatomic gases (think oxygen: O2) or even more futilely, needing no one at all like the noble gases (helium). Perhaps John Donne should have written, “No man is a noble gas entire of itself.” 

Carbon is the stuff of life, and while it mirrors our interconnectedness and the importance of relationships to each person, it is also another wonder of nature that points to the nature of its creator. God himself seeks connections and relationships, interacts with other beings, and experiences attractions and repulsions like the subatomic particles that make up his creation. 

Truly the world is a wondrous place. Even when the concepts seem impossible to grasp, the complexities of an assignment seem insurmountable and the burden of studying something so far outside of my comfort zone weighs down on me, I should remember carbon and its many bonds and go at once to the help center where a kind person is waiting to interact with me, helping me make connections between concepts as I make a connection with another human being.

To myself as much as to anyone else I repeat: no man is a noble gas entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.

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