Monday, October 5, 2009

Uncertainty

In chemistry class in middle and high school, we drew lots of nice neat diagrams of molecules. Lewis dot diagrams, structural diagrams: count the valence electrons, draw the line segments, and there's the molecule. It's a bit of a puzzle, not just a straightforward recipe, but there are wrong answers and one best answer. I always thought of chemistry as something clear-cut. The periodic table is so organized, forests of facts packed into stacks of boxes. The way I tend to see it, the periodic table is hoarding all the answers.

But I just read that those precise little line and dot diagrams don't correspond to experimental results. It's not just that the real molecules have three dimensions and don't appreciate being splayed out and pinned to the page. It's that they won't even hold still enough to be drawn.

So we talk about "resonance structures"--two models that the molecule somehow straddles. Okay. That's like how light is a wave and a particle (though really I am far too blasé about that idea!). Two flat pictures combine to describe a real space-filling thing. That's like how blueprints describe a house someone other than A. Square can inhabit.

But then I kept reading. The books tells me, now, that the bonds in an oxygen molecule can't be single bonds, but they can't be double bonds, either. Our diagrams fit badly, like a too-small jacket. The lines in the diagrams are always crisp and straight. But in a living molecule, the bonds aren't static and clean. The electrons flit and flash everywhere, and they squirm out of their prescribed paths. They go wandering.

I thought chemistry meant knowing the proportions and the way they combine, knowing how to read the periodic table. But it seems that even on the level of atoms associating with each other, living together, getting married (to have all things in common?), nothing is completely known. Uncertainty lurks in the very air we breathe. How many mysteriously structured oxygen molecules flooded into my lungs just now? and how many did I breathe out?

And how often do I leave my orbit?

And what else do I assume I can diagram and label, when really it's a cloud and a dance and an animated creature, not a cadavre to be dissected, not a line to be drawn, not a road to whiz along?

1 comment:

meandering.spark said...

Miss you Jen!
Very cool post. The line And how often do I leave my orbit? is a zinger : ) I was just talking to someone yesterday about how when you get deep enough into even a very logical subject, things get abstract. I tend to think of science as being step by step set in stone but its not really how it is. We were reading a poem in Precept about the creation of the earth (The Father was the Void, the Wife Waves, or something like that by Gary Snyder) and it actually works pretty well with science. The teacher was saying that at the deep level science can sound like poetry.