Molecular Monday: Why Chemistry?

The first Monday of the month is Molecular Monday here on Planet Pailly!

We just wrapped up this year’s A to Z Challenge, and I ended up writing a lot about chemistry. A lot more than I expected. You’d think I must really love chemistry.

But I don’t.

I really don’t.

For a long time, I tried to avoid the subject completely due to bad memories from high school chemistry. My professor was extremely generous in giving me a just-barely-passing grade.

So when I made the commitment to include more science in my science fiction, I figured I could get by with just the “fun” sciences like physics and astronomy. Then in 2015, I did my yearlong Mission to the Solar System, and the planet Venus forced me to start learning this chemistry stuff.

As you can see in this totally legit actual Hubble image, Venus has some very special chemical activity going on.

There’s simply no way to understand what’s happening on Venus without getting into the weird sulfur chemistry of the Venusian atmosphere. But once you do make sense of that sulfur chemistry, a strange new world is suddenly open to you: a world of both heavenly beauty and acid rain hellfire death.

Since my experiences with Venus, I’ve come to realize that understanding chemistry, even at a basic level, makes my work as a science blogger and science fiction writer so much easier.

  • Is there life on Mars or Europa? What about life in other star systems, or silicon-based life? If alien life is out there, it will be the product of chemistry.
  • What about humans traveling to other worlds? What would be safe for us to eat or breathe? Chemistry can help answer that too.
  • Venus isn’t the only world defined by chemistry. Earth has been shaped in large part by the chemistry of oxygen and water; the gas giants by ammonia and methane; and then there’s a true oddball like Titan with its tholen chemistry.
  • And how am I going to get my rocket ship off the ground? By mixing rocket fuel. In other words, by doing chemistry.

Chemistry is by no means the most fundamental science, but for the kinds of things I write, it is the most applicable science. So even though I don’t enjoy the subject, I’ve forced myself to stick with it.

And if I’m being perfectly honest, in those aha-moments when complex chemical reactions suddenly makes sense to me, I may quietly murmur to myself, “Okay, chemistry is kind of fun.”

10 thoughts on “Molecular Monday: Why Chemistry?

  1. It’s not unusual to see science fiction authors with a commanding grasp of one science but with appalling blind spots in others. They may have a solid understanding of physics but their future society fails the most basic tenets of economics. And it’s lamentably common to see very basic mistakes when it comes to the brain.

    But actually seeing all these mistakes has made me feel better. It shows that you don’t have to be perfect to succeed at this stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know what you mean. I’ve read books that felt like weird mixes of hard Sci-Fi and science fantasy, with extreme accuracy on one topic and absurd space magic regarding others.

      I guess no one can be an expert on everything. I’m just trying to focus on what I think is useful for the stories I want to write, and I can only hope that that will be enough.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I wish I knew more about this stuff. I avoided the sciences in school because I assumed they were for people good at math, and I sucked at math. I did enjoy biology, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s part of why I steered clear of the hard sciences as well. I’m okay at math, but not great. Still, I’ve found you can pick up a lot without getting too deep into the mathematics.

      As I recall, Monsters in Our Wake had a fair amount of marine biology in it, so it seems your biology knowledge was put to good use.


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