Alchemic for the people

I was less than a metre above current sea level, rooting about in the holy bookshelves of my Evangelical host, searching for a suitable title.

I pulled out “Who Made God ?” from underneath a pile of books on their sides, letting the column slump downwards, alerting my companions to the fact that I had definitively made my choice for the evening’s reading.

We were treated to gentle Christmassy music for an hour or so as we all gave up talking to read by candlelight and compact fluorescent.

I didn’t read fast, as at first I didn’t have my newly-necessary reading glasses, and when I was encouraged to fetch them, the light was too dim to make reading easy. Those fashionable uplighters.

I read into the second part, and I had already formed in my mind several disagreements with the author, Professor Edgar Andrews, despite him having taken several good lines of reasoning and made some humourous points which I had duly responded to with a slight audible giggle.

I instinctively didn’t like his pitch about the impossibility of organic chemistry and I froze a little : personally I see no need for God’s personal, literal, physical intervention to make the ladders and spirals of genes – the DNA and RNA forming from the appropriate nucleotide bases – A, T, G, C.

And then the book’s author blew away his credibility, for me, at least, by getting bogged down in the absolutes of Physics, and ignoring Chemistry. He quoted the Laws of Thermodynamics, and claimed Entropy as proof that God doesn’t play dice because he’s in the garage playing mechanic. The direction of the universe, the arrow of time, plays towards randomness, the author of the book proclaimed. Order cannot come from inorganic matter – Life is the organising force.

At this, I took several forms of dispute, and immediately found in my mind the perfect counter-example – the formation of crystals from saturated solution – the building of the stalgamite and stalagtite from the sedimentary filtering of rainwater. Another example, I think, is chiral forms of molecular compounds – some chemicals behave in different ways if formed lefthandedly or righthandedly. The different forms behave predictably and consistently and this is an ordered behaviour that I believe – without the necessary university instruction in Chemistry – is an imposed denial of chaos.

In fact, the whole of Chemistry, its world of wonder in alchemy, I think points to a kind of natural negation of the Laws of Physics. There is the Micro World, where Newton, and more introspectively, Einstein, are correct in their theoretical pragmas. But in the Macro World, there is Chemistry, and there are precursor compounds to organic essentials. Life forms itself from dead stone. For a Physicist this is “just not cricket”, it is a whole new universe.

Why can Aluminium be used for containers in microwave ovens, but steel cannot ? And why is Aluminium so light ? Why does water expand when it freezes ? Here the Physicists can help out. But they cannot, when it comes to explaining, or even accurately predicting, all the chemical properties of alloys and compounds.

I have been pondering, in a crude, uneducated way, about industrial chemistry for the last couple of months. How large volume reactions are encouraged, catalysed. How fluids work. How gases breathe. My conclusion is that most chemical engineering is a bit brutish, like the workings of the internal combustion engine. Things are a tad forced. It is probably not possible for chemical engineers to replicate photosynthesis entirely – it’s too dainty for them. But that is the kind of chemistry we need to overcome our climate and energy problems.

We may not be able to match the leaves on the trees, but we can do gas chemistry and electricity and semiconductor physics, and it is gas chemistry and electricity and semiconductor physics that will save the planet. Electricity to replace much fuel. Semiconductor physics to bypass photosynthesis. And Renewable Gas chemistry – engineering the chemical building blocks of the future and providing backup to the other green energies.

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