How were elementary particles such as the electron and the proton discovered? What decides how fast a chemical reaction happens and if it can happen in the first place? What does it mean to say that photons and electrons have both properties that are traditionally thought of as associated with matter and waves? What are orbitals and why do electrons not just crash into the nucleus? What is the difference between a covalent and ionic bond? What about polar covalent bonds? What happens when you disrupt a chemical equilibrium? What are some enzyme catalysts that are involved in biological processes and how do they work?
These and many other interesting chemistry questions are addressed in an MIT course called Principles of Chemical Science that was taught in the fall of 2008 by Catherine L. Drennan and Elizabeth Vogel Taylor. The course generated a total of 36 video lectures that were put on the MIT OpenCourseWare Youtube channel the next year. The entire playlist can be found here. The video lectures are also available at the course website. In total, they span roughly 24 hours and cover material on quantum mechanics, orbital theory, periodic trends, entropy, chemical equilibrium, acid-base titrations, redox reactions, rates laws and applications in biology, nuclear chemistry and biochemistry.
A lot of chemistry seems difficult and complex at first, but the more you expose yourself to the material, the easier it will seem. Chemistry is vital to many aspects of our existence. It is involved in the food you eat, the production of new medications, water treatment plants, atmospheric processes, enzymes in the human body and so on. It also connects related areas such as physics and biology and provides a useful framework for understanding crucial challenges we face in our modern world.
Having a basic understanding of modern chemistry is also crucial to be an effective debunker of pseudoscience. So many forms of pseudoscience rely on false claims about various aspects of chemistry, including fearmongering about “chemicals”, the relationship between dose and response, the intellectual emptiness of homeopathy and many other subjects. Thus, having a working knowledge of chemical principles is a useful part of the toolbox of scientific skepticism.
The Importance of Chemical Principles
This first lecture goes into some detail about the different areas of chemistry and provides a myriad of examples of how knowledge of chemistry comes into many different careers and career pathways.
Discovery of Electron and Nucleus
Provides a brief overview and historical context to the discovery of electrons and the components of the atomic nucleus, as well as an explanation for why quantum mechanics is relevant for chemistry.
Wave-Particle Duality of Light
Investigates the question of what it actually means to say that light has some properties that have been traditionally associated with waves and some that have been traditionally associated with particles. How does interference work?
Wave-Particle Duality of Matter
How does the photoelectric effect work? What does it mean to say that matter particles have a wavelength?
Hydrogen Atom Energy Levels
Focuses on applying the insights of quantum mechanics to the hydrogen atom.
Hydrogen Atom Wavefunctions
This lectures goes into more detail about different quantum numbers and the physical interpretation of the square of the wave function.
Covers s and p orbitals, as well as the fourth quantum number.
Multielectron Atoms and Electron Configurations
So far they have talked about the hydrogen atom. But what happens when we move on to atoms that have more than one atom? Why is this so much harder and how do you make progress?
Chemical elements in the same group or the same period behaves similarly or has a predictable change as you move down a group or across a period. This lecture provides the quantum chemical details to why this is the case.
What are covalent bonds and why is the sharing of electrons not always equal? Why are some covalent bonds stronger than others?
What is a Lewis structure and what are the eight steps to drawing one? What can it be used for?
How do chemists do math on ionic bonds? How are they different from covalent bonds?
Polar Covalent Bonds and VSEPR Theory
VSEPR theory unites insights from Lewis structure with quantum mechanics to patch some of the problems in the previous method. Polar covalent bonds are the middle ground between covalent and ion bonds. How does that work out?
Molecular Orbital Theory
Orbits were simple when it was just a single atom. But what goes on with orbitals when you have a molecule?
Valence Bond Theory and Hybridization
What are sigma and pi bonds? How does all of this affect the angle between bonds and free electron pairs?
When chemical bonds form and break, energy is either released or absorbed from the surrounding. How does this allow us to find out the heat energy produced by oxidizing glucose?
Entropy and Disorder
What is entropy and how does it play into chemistry?
Free Energy and Control of Spontaneity
This lecture goes into some detail about how to find out if a chemical reaction can occur spontaneously or not.
A chemical equilibrium might seem like a situation where nothing happens, but there is really a lot of things going on. What does the constant k mean?
Le Chatelier’s Principle
Some things can upset a chemical equilibrium. What then happens is highly interesting. The system attempts to restore itself.
Acid and bases can steal or donate electrons. Are there more general versions of these abilities and how do you calculate pH? What does the corresponding pOH mean?
Chemical and Biological Buffers
What does it mean for an acid or base to be weak or strong? How do buffers work and what are some biological examples?
This lecture shows you how to use titrations to find concentration or molecular weights. They are sometimes cumbersome, but this will help you do those problems with more confidence.
Balancing Redox Equations
A redox reaction consists of an oxidizer and a reducer that interact. How do you balance these equations using nothing but redox numbers?
How do electrochemical cells work and what is the chemistry and math behind them?
Chemical and Biological Redox Reactions
This lecture finishes up the material on redox reactions and considers some biological examples.
What are transitional metals and what role do they play in human health risks? This lecture includes references to vampire movies.
Crystal Field Theory
Crystal field theory can be used to predict many chemical and physical properties of some forms of matter. But how does it work and what are its limitations?
Metals in Biology
Why should we care about geometry when looking at proteins in biological organisms that have metal cofactors?
Magnetism and Spectrochemical Theory
This video lecture covers how the oxidation state and liganded state determines the color of molecules. This is the final lecture on transition metals.
Chemical reactions happen at different speeds and this can depend on concentration. These are governed by different rate laws.
Nuclear Chemistry and Elementary Reactions
This lecture finishes up kinetics and covers radioactivity and different forms of radioactive decays.
Experimental data related to rate laws are often highly useful for coming up with a reaction mechanisms that work. This lecture shows you how to test specific reaction mechanisms against empirical data.
Temperature and Kinetics
How does temperature influence the rate at which reactions happen?
Enzymes are biological molecules that make certain reactions go faster. These are highly important in biological systems. How do these work mechanistically?
The final lecture reviews and connects knowledge of basic chemistry with direct biological and biochemical applications in the human body.
These video lectures provide a great introductory survey of the facts and applications of modern chemistry and its many diverse fields. The website also has a set of three exams that you can use to see if you have accurately mastered the material or not. One might argue that it is not needed to grasp university-level chemistry to debunk pseudosciences that are as ridiculously ignorant as homeopathy, but anti-science efforts are getting increasingly more complex and convoluted. More scientific knowledge will help one rise to the challenge in the current misinformation wars.