My goal is to communicate and re-establish a dialogue between scientists and laymen. If today, some insights into modern physics or biology have been made accessible to a wide public, through books, films or Internet, modern chemistry is much less popularized. Nevertheless, chemistry should fascinate us all because it makes some light on our most existential question: who are we? By giving answers to the question: what are we? I believe that these answers that chemistry offers can have an unexpected impact on our everyday life because, strangely enough, they touch our deep inside.
Matter, void and energy. According to science, this is all there is in our cosmos. Chemistry teaches that all matter, including our own flesh, is made of a mysterious substance, the atoms. On a large scale, these atoms give us the impression of small beads. Glued together, they form molecules. Atoms and molecules are the bricks of all the solids, liquids and gases of our universe i.e. the inert matter, and also the bricks of all living organisms i.e. the living matter. In fact, atoms are the only inhabitants of our universe. They are very very small and incredibly numerous. They are everywhere. There is “no one” else. Your own body is just a bunch of atoms bound together. As long as you are alive, your body is destroying and forming new molecules, constantly; for instance you breathe in oxygen you breathe out carbonic gas. Because of a tremendous number of chemical reactions occurring at any instant in your body, it constantly changes: it moves it sweats, it grows hair and nails, it can fatten, reddish, speak, hear, see etc… In fact your body is a very busy factory of chemicals. It consumes food, oxygen, light etc. and expels waste. Food, oxygen, light etc. supply to your body the energy and the atoms you need to fabricate the molecules that are keeping you alive at any moment and help you to get rid of the old ones. What makes you different from a real factory is that you do so spontaneously. You do not need to tell your body to breathe in oxygen or to your hemoglobin to catch it… Nevertheless, dead or alive any chemical systems obey very strict laws, the fundamental laws of matter. These laws rule over matter since the birth of the Universe and we can’t escape them.
The first law teaches us that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It appeared during the big bang and now it is here. We cannot add energy to the world and we cannot subtract energy from the world. We can consider energy as a gift from the sky. In fact one may say that energy is our true richness, like coins in your pocket. However like coins in your pocket, energy can flow; chemistry teaches that during any spontaneous chemical reaction energy passes from one system to another. In fact, if we keep this image of energy being like money in the atomic world, then a chemical reaction may be seen as a financial transaction, where instead of money passing from one pocket to another, energy passes from one system to another. Nevertheless it doesn’t disappear. Energy never disappears.
The second law stipulates any spontaneous chemical reaction leads to a degradation of energy. To understand what is a degradation of energy let’s say that during a financial transaction you paid with a dollar coin but the other part did not receive this dollar in one coin but in many coins: a coin of fifty cents, two coins of twenty cents and a coin of ten cents. In a very pictorial way we could say that during any spontaneous chemical reaction, energy is degraded as if it was losing “its density”.
An energy crisis is threatening the western world not because energy is disappearing from the cosmos but because energy is becoming too “diluted” for us to use it. Is it possible to make a reasonable financial transaction with cents? Would you buy a house with cents? Or even bread? In the same line of thought, can you make a sandwich with bread crumbs? This is the kind of issues which we are facing today concerning energy.
As opposed to chemical systems involving inert matter which can only lead to a spontaneous degradation of energy in the sense we just wrote earlier, chemical systems involving living matter have been given a kind of delay. Living systems, including your own are able to delay this spontaneous degradation and use energy for organization like protein synthesis, reproduction of cells etc. Life is a kind of transient phase of matter which can spontaneously “use” energy which it gets from outside, before it is degraded. Notice here that if for few minutes only, you don’t absorb the oxygen necessary to provide your energy… you die.
All that we swallow, breathe, touch, smell, see and hear, all that is captured by our five senses, translates into chemical reactions coupled with an energy flow. In which direction? Toward degradation? Towards organization? Toward life which breeds life? What control do we have? Obviously part of this energy flow is totally out of our control. You do not control your temperature every minute to check if you should increase “the fire” or lower it down. On the other hand if we had no control at all on the energy that flows in our body, we would be like vegetables. What do you do with that part of energy which you control? Do you spend it on physical exercise? Practicing piano? Watching TV? Anger? Frustration? Hate? Love? Would you feel a difference in your being?
Another fundamental issue concerns the intrinsic nature of matter. On a large scale, atoms appear to be small solid bodies. But in fact, as incredible as this sounds, at the dawn of the 20th century quantum theory claimed that atoms are not solids but waves! These waves of matter do not resemble the waves we know, such as sound waves or electromagnetic waves. They are waves of possibilities! We call them waves because of their capacity to interfere, but even in their wildest imagination, scientists are unable to describe their physicality. So don’t feel dumb if you don’t understand what it means. Nevertheless, not only it has been experimental proven that at the atomic level matter are waves, but also the mathematical equations provided by quantum theory are so accurate that they launched the basis of all to our modern technologies… together with satellites in the sky!
For us here, the most relevant message of the quantum revolution, is that our brain is receiving information coming from these waves of possibilities and is fabricating the image that we see, the colors the shape the smells the taste and the textures of all is around us. Quantum theory tells us that the reality we see is only one of the many possible existing options. What choice do we really have and who chooses it? Is another question that should puzzle us all!
Finally the last issue I wish to raise concerns the relationship between matter and mind. This is most often considered by scientists as metaphysical and irrelevant to science. Yet if according to science, matter is governed by laws that dictate our most insignificant movements, isn’t it legitimate to ask how our mind does come into the picture? If it doesn’t then what is its role? And if it does what is the connection between the reactions of our body and of our mind? Can our mind change our chemistry? Many think so today, but their theories are rejected by most scientists.
On one hand my work is to expose a world that is obscure to many, and on the other hand, open a dialogue between science and other disciplines.