Chemistry, Part 1: Everything is a Chemical

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This world is filled with things that take up space. Sometimes those things are heavy, sometimes they’re light, sometimes they change form, and sometimes they dissolve. In the disciplines of chemistry and physics, those “things” are called matter. Chemistry is the science of understanding the nature of matter and changes that occur with matter.

Why is this so important, and why is it important to take the space here to do a Chemistry 101 primer? We often think of chemistry being a science lab sort of activity, such as a mad scientist taking a beaker of some mysterious liquid and pouring it into another beaker of some mysterious liquid, and then a volatile explosion occurs. But chemistry is a science understood and practiced routinely by bakers and farmers. Chemistry can explain how dough becomes bread. Chemistry can explain why a wheat plant is healthy or weak.

Everything in the world has a chemical makeup. The world is full, literally, of atoms. Remember the Periodic Table from high school? That Periodic Table lists all of the elements known to mankind. Whatever you see around you, whether it is a desk, a shirt, a car, a tree – all of those things can be broken down into elements and identified on the Periodic Table.

Atoms are the smallest unit of an element. Atoms can join together with other atoms to form molecules and compounds. A molecule is when two or more atoms join together, and can be two atoms of the same element. A compound is distinguished from a molecule in that a compound is when two or more different elemental atoms join together. It’s one of those scientific distinctions that goes like this: all compounds are molecules, but not all molecules are compounds. There’s a little nugget of knowledge for you that can hopefully come in handy on trivia night.

But still the question remains – and what this post is ultimately about – Why is chemistry important? Because everything is a chemical. This is important for understanding baking science and central to understanding agricultural science. Especially in regard to agriculture, the word “chemical” often has a bad connotation.

Farmers are often asked if they put “chemicals” on their crops, as this is a concern among many consumers. Organic fertilizers are chemicals just as much as synthetic (man-made) fertilizers are chemicals. Cow manure is a “chemical” every bit as much as a shiny white granule of man-made fertilizer.

If a farmer told you that they spread a product on their wheat crop that contained a blend of ammonium nitrate, uric acid, orthophosphoric acid, and potassium carbonate, would you want to eat that wheat? We should not be automatically scared of big chemical nomenclature. These chemicals with the scientific names above that the farmer put on his wheat crop came in the form of seabird excrement (otherwise known as guano), a commonly used fertilizer on organic farms.

The point is that everything is a chemical. There are surely chemicals in this world that are harmful to humans, and some that are not. This is the nature of the world we live in, and that is why we’re taking the space here to do a little Chemistry 101. The world is complex, mysterious, and magnificent in its organization. As the old NBC Network’s PSA’s used to say: The More You Know…