April 2022

Chemistry Is The Worst teaser image

Chemistry is the Worst

Even as a chemical engineer, I hate chemistry. I have wasted too much of my life staring at random letters, poorly drawn hexagons, and confusing diagrams. I have hundreds of organic chemistry reaction notecards stashed away in a box somewhere collecting dust, the stains of dried tears still evident. I have logged multiple hours of sleep in the back of various organic chemistry classrooms during the monotonous droning of a tired professor and the soft tapping of students’ fingers on their phones. I have been so entrenched in a stupor of tedium and regret that it makes even precarious lab experiment warnings such as “CORROSIVE” and “MAY EXPLODE IF ALLOWED TO STAND” and “MAY CAUSE PERMANENT SINUS PROBLEMS IF INHALED” sound preferrable to sitting through another lecture over electron orbitals. And yet, despite all the safety preparations and promises of bodily harm, I still somehow end up sitting in utter boredom for three hours trying to titrate a weak acid with a strong base with a precision not even brain surgeons have mastered.

I hate chemistry.

Every solubility calculation, every thermodynamic equation, every equilibrium constant estimation simply makes up the amalgamation of information that gets painfully crammed into my brain each semester only to disappear shortly after an exam. Who cares if I memorize Planck’s constant or Avogadro’s number when I could simply look them up whenever I may need them, assuming I would ever actually need to? I could be learning French or Chinese, but of course not. I’m learning a language that lets me discern that the chemical name for C6H6O3 is hydroxymethylfurfural, a skill which is apparently so much more relevant and useful than being able to order a baguette on my own in Paris or being able to communicate with my Chinese overlords when they rule the world someday.

And it’s not just me. To anybody who is not a godforsaken chemist, when has chemistry ever offered any of us anything more than a headache and a few shed tears? When has knowing how to estimate the fugacity of a gas or how to calculate the percent yield of a reaction ever been relevant to everyday life? When has wasting multiple evenings and skipping multiple meals to memorize the pKa values of amino acids ever been conducive to a happy, healthy life? In fact, when has chemistry ever been relevant outside of school? It is not as though it impacts every facet of our lives. And yes, I write that with as much sarcasm as I can muster.

I hate chemistry, but it is a remarkable science.

The reason I majored in and am still majoring in chemical engineering is because it is a degree that is so widely needed across multiple industries. It allows me to study and manufacturer medicines or research and experiment with rocket fuels. Everything from machines to textiles to food requires some understanding of chemistry to be improved and innovated. Chlorine is used to kill bacteria in wastewater to protect humans, and this chlorine is then neutralized by adding sulfur dioxide to protect the environment. Antibiotics are created in bioreactors with very specific feed concentrations, substrate types, and reaction atmospheres. Carbon dioxide scrubbers utilize solvents to absorb and isolate CO2 from the other components of incoming gaseous streams to prevent air pollution. Chemistry is a difficult science to learn and apply, but it is essential for maintaining and advancing civilization and our quality of life. Therefore, for as much as I loathe chemistry labs and lectures, I respect the science more.

But even now, as a graduate student who has spent the last five years of her life learning to appreciate an incredible science, I still must fight the urge to audibly groan and bang my head into the table whenever my professor brings up the Thiele modulus. The ideal gas equation will always live useless and rent-free in my head, and I will forever know that the molecule C8H10N4O2 is called 1,3,7-trimethylpurine2,6-dione even as I continue to refer to it as simply “caffeine.” I will never forget the scent of chemicals and desperation that permeate the chemistry labs, and I will never not joke about how widespread and dangerous dihydrogen monoxide is while internally weeping at my dorkiness.

All of this is to say, I don’t have to love something to respect it, and I would never want my distaste for something to diminish its value in the eyes of others. Chemistry is incomprehensible and pointless to many people, but it remains essential to all of us, as are many other majors and professions.

May we all realize that we do not have to like something to respect its value. 

Now, please pardon me while I memorize the Hougen-Watson mechanism for estimating the reaction rate of molecules adsorbed onto a catalytic surface only to forget all of this by the end of May.

About the Author

image of author Abigail Graves

Abigail Graves

Originally from small beer-town Shiner, TX, Abigail is currently a master’s student in Chemical Engineering with an emphasis in water resources. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M, yet chemistry is still her least favorite science. She works fulltime at an engineering consulting firm specializing in wastewater treatment plant design. She is married, has five dogs and loves anything nerdy, but will break some ankles on the basketball court if needed.

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