By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
Long ago, much longer than I would care to admit, I was working as an analytical chemist at an environmental lab. I had read an interesting article the night before in the chemistry newsletter, and at lunch, surrounded by my fellow chemists, asked if anybody else had read it. The only response I had was, “I don’t want to talk about science on my break.”
Science is really cool. It helps us to understand things that might not otherwise make sense. Many years, I heard about how a certain drink to which I am addicted causes decalcification of bones because of the use of phosphoric acid. A lot of people might naturally assume that it’s the “acid” that decalcifies bones, but the reality is that this acid is used in a buffer system to control acidity, so that the drink never becomes too acidic or too basic. No, it’s not the acid that causes bones to decalcify; it’s the phosphate.
See, when we are born, our bones are pliable. They have to be, or they would be pulverized in the violence of the birth process. But there are two forms of calcium salts in our bodies, being converted back and forth. When we’re born, the form of calcium has a higher phosphate content, making it water-soluble. As we begin to grow, this phosphate leaves our bodies, and the calcium is converted to the lower phosphate, and less soluble, form, and the calcium deposits in our bones causing them to harden.
Understanding chemistry allows me to make sense of the statement that excess phosphate causes bones to decalcify because I understand how chemical equilibrium works. Honestly, it’s not something I would have thought of on my own, but I could immediately understand the report when it was published. How can this be anything but cool?
Yes, I’m a nerd.
Many years ago, I was teaching at a small medical arts college. Attached to a pretty major medical center, this college had degrees in just about every medical discipline one can think of short of offering actual MD degrees (physician assistant, nursing, imaging, respiratory care and so forth). The college had a lot of “legacy” students, meaning children of medical personnel. One of the most bizarre arguments with a student I have ever had was with one of these students, who asked me where I had my medical training. I explained that I’ve never had medical training, to which he insisted that, yes, clearly I have because I know too much about medicine, and where did I get it?
This is what understanding science does for me. Because of my love of science (chemistry, yes, but also mathematics, physics, biology…everything really), I have the flexibility of knowledge to be able to apply the principles of science to a large variety of applications, whether or not they seem to be related on first glance.
This is not my only interest, though. I also write fiction, do art like painting and drawing, play musics, play games and none of it well. But my passion extends from science to the arts, literature, culture, and so much more. Somebody once pointed out that it is far more common to find art books in the office of a science professor than it is to find science in the office of art faculty. Now, I have been fortunate to know many artists with a true passion for the sciences, so I’m not sure how generally true this is, but it’s an interesting observation. It has been suggested that the reason is that scientists are fascinated by the world around them, and that world includes the fine arts.
It’s a big, beautiful world, with fascinating phenomena, and truly talented people. Science helps me to see the connections between them. Am I unable to appreciate the music to which I am listening because I can only see the mathematical constructs contained with it, or can I appreciate it more because I see the mathematical constructs as well as enjoying the auditory experience?