Everything around us is chemistry – water, air, the ground we walk on, and our biological bodies are a miracle of balanced chemical reactions.  As babies we experiment with our five senses to explore the useful nature and functions of materials.  What is soft and hard, hot and cold, malleable and brittle.  Parents get horrified at their kids’ taste tests, but it only takes once to determine what tastes good and bad.

We soon sublimate the miracles of everyday chemistry and take them as given – panting after exertion is increased oxygen intake, shivering is flesh doing work on a nanometer scale to generate heat, hunger is a need for more carbon-hydrogen bonds to fuel combustion for maintenance and mobilizing myriad body functions.  We don’t need to test every step we take because we learn to link observations with a huge file of molecular characteristics.  If the path looks slippery then we take care.

Having learned and subsumed these libraries of chemical facts (when water boils and freezes

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, what food rots and what metals rust, and the strengths of materials) we go about our daily business with no need to fact check.  Our body functions, millions of them, are basically self-correcting, though we acknowledge unquestioningly the need for rest and maintenance, and some people are particular about the chemistry of what we eat.

And so a person gets up in the morning and starts the day.  There are more intricate moving parts than on an aircraft carrier (we can build aircraft carriers but not people). So what does a person do?  Part routine – breakfast and dress, and part conscious mission, a hierarchy of priorities based on importance, timing and relationship compatibility and synergy. Breathing, drinking and eating are crucial but usually below the horizon of our planning.

Most actions done are not discussed in terms of chemistry, but in abstract shortcuts to identify the goal. The more abstract and long term the goal, the less relevant the chemical reactions involved seem to be.  “Getting married and having a family” is a noble cause embraced by a majority of people, and the chemistry involved, over 3 or 4 decades, does not seem to warrant detailed attention. We think at higher levels of abstraction unless something goes wrong with health.

Only occasionally can our long term goals be characterized in chemistry terms – gold, diamonds, scarce compounds, athletic performance, dieting.  Elaborately transformed manufactures are the result of complex series of chemical processes, often of rare materials in an organized way.  We fail to admire the chemistry in a smartphone, but it is a miracle maze of atomic structure of silicon, copper and other metals and materials. Expert chemists worked together to make it look simple.

Here is a heady, complex concept: the history of the Earth is a series of chemical reactions, and right now the number of atoms that make up the planet are either in stable relationships or are reacting to form new compounds.  The bulk are fixed – rock, and the second large category are in cycles, with carbon, oxygen and water as main reactants and products.  Birth, and life, and death have a chemistry basis.

From animal kingdoms where individuals or groups forage for food and sustain life, and the chemistry is fairly basic, humans evolved from similar patterns to complex societies with value chains. Originally production was in primary industries through to now where the major sector of an economy is services.  The more profound the value chains and more intricate the skills and history of learning that goes into final goods and services, the less traceable is the chemistry at work. If you don’t get half a kilogram of carbohydrate a day, that is a huge problem, and it is a challenge for a billion people.  But for the majority of 7 billion people where the next meal is coming from is not a mystery.  There is more thought given to a ton of metal in a car, or the bricks, mortar and timber in a house.

The big abstraction occurs when material goods and services are equated to a price, which then tends to skip over any chemical processes to reach what consumers see as the final delivery.  While individuals facing markets may still have a feel for chemistry behind production, stimulus packages and smoke-and-mirror financial products have diluted reality till wellbeing is a one dimensional dollar number.  Chemistry is more than that and does not lie.  Chemistry can nourish and warm and provide protection. Of course it can harm in the wrong hands too.  We all need a feel for the chemistry of all around us.

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