Chemistry Conspiracy 10/2/19

Science Discussion by Richard Bleil

A student of mine recently suggested to me that chemistry is just a conspiracy. I think that she was being “tongue-in-cheek”, but I think she was much closer to being correct than she might think. Or, maybe she knows it. Maybe her presence in the class is just a conspiracy to put somebody who knows a lot about the subject already among my class.

Oooooh, reverse conspiracy theory!

According to her conspiracy theory, there is no such thing as chemistry. She said that we really can’t see atoms or molecules, so we can’t prove that they exist, and therefore everything is just made up, apparently, to make the lives of students tough. By forcing students to take chemistry, they have to spend money to take the class and it just keeps the students poor and us, faculty, what, rich? I guess? Well, it keeps somebody rich anyway.

Okay, let’s talk about this. The discussion might surprise you. Or put you to sleep. I don’t know…let’s find out, shall we?

First, can we see atoms? Actually, yes, we believe we can, but we need to explore this a bit further. Sometime in the early to mid eighties, the “Scanning Tunneling Microscope”, or “STM” was developed. This is a fascinating mechanical device which uses a highly sharpened “probe” that is far sharper than any needle or syringe (a few atoms in width), with an electromagnetic field generated within it. This tip moves very close to the surface of what is being scanned and slowly moves around on it. The force exerted by the electrons of the atoms are then mapped, which are turned into an image. The detected “bumps” are assumed to be atoms. Some particularly clever physicists at IBM (and I believe at MIT) realized that by changing the force, they can literally push atoms around a surface, and they spelled “IBM” in atoms (a couple dozen or so). So can we see atoms? Well, what we can see are the images created by an instrument that we believe are true representations of the locations of atoms.

So is everything made up? Or does STM “prove” atomic theory? No, it does not prove atomic theory, and yes, everything is made up.

See, this is all that hypotheses, theories and laws are. They’re made up. They’re all just guesses by people through the years to explain phenomena. But, that’s the key. They are made up to explain phenomena.

See, these theories and laws are not made up just to annoy students, although, as a professor, it’s certainly a “perk” when they do. Don’t tell anyone. But they are created, modified, replaced, modified again and again and again by many many many people to explain the collective set of phenomena that have been observed. In fact, they ALL have to fit together. A new hypothesis that cannot be made to fit existing theories either means that that hypothesis has to be thrown out, or EVERYTHING ELSE has to be thrown out. But I will tell you this; for everything else to be thrown out (including physical laws and theories that have been around for thousands of years), that brand-new hypothesis had better explain all observed phenomena to date better than the current collection of laws and hypotheses and theories.

This is why, honestly, this will likely never happen. Oh, a new hypothesis MIGHT replace some small subset of laws and theories and hypotheses that related to one highly specific area, but even that is unlikely, and, again, only if that new hypothesis fits everything else. But, again, these are all based on the collective observations of phenomena accumulated from the beginning of human observations. These observations include the results of experiment that are designed specifically to test (and the best experiments are designed to attempt to disprove) all of these laws and theories and hypotheses. Every time we test one or more of those theories, they become better accepted, and yet, it is all just a guess to explain all of those collective observations.

Sometimes we educators forget that. As we teach science, any good teacher will have, in the back of their mind, an understanding that all of those laws and theories and hypotheses could, technically, be disproved at any time. That one experiment that proves that all existence is a myth means that we need to start all over again, from scratch, with a brand-new set of questions. Far from being paranoid (which is even worse than being mononoid) by this prospect, scientists find it rather exciting, or, at least, I do. To be able to start over again? How cool would THAT be? But, back to the point, when we teach our subject in the sciences, we tend to teach these models (meaning the collective laws and theories and hypotheses) as fact. We tend to present atomic theory, for example, with confidence as if it can never be replaced. In fact, in all likelihood, it will never be replaced, but a little bit of doubt is actually the nature of science.

So is it all a conspiracy? Can we prove that atoms really exist? No. And no. No we cannot ever prove that atoms really exist, but, every new experiment that we design to test for atoms comes back with what we expect to find, even when the STM was developed. Any variations are usually small enough that if atomic theory changes at all, it only needs a tweaking, but so far, nothing has proven it wrong. In fact, science can NEVER prove ANYTHING to be correct. It can only show when something is wrong (like the four elements were proven to be incorrect), and so far, atomic theory has never been proven wrong. Is it a conspiracy? No. We’re teaching that model that explains the phenomena the best.

Sorry. You still have to take the tests.

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