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Foreword: Chemogenesis & Chemical Education

This page previews the chemogenesis analysis in the context of chemical education.

Chemistry in Crisis

The number of students studying chemistry at school and university is falling. There are many reasons why, including:

I suggest that, in addition, there is a chemical education problem which is causing students to reject the subject. I do not mean that chemists are bad teachers. On the contrary, chemistry is difficult and it is essential to be a good teacher to convey the complexity and richness of the subject. I hold that there is a structural difficulty concerning chemical reactions & chemical reactivity:

I am concerned about how this effects professional scientists who are not chemists but who require a knowledge of chemistry, rather than professional chemists. A PhD chemist will have had many years of exposure to chemical science and will have gained a deep understanding of the subject. However, academic chemistry is a priesthood and the path-to-knowledge is not readily accessible to non-chemists. While this could be said about any profession, chemistry is uniquely inaccessible amongst the major sciences:

How many popular science books are there on: mathematics, complexity theory, cosmology, quantum physics, DNA, plate tectonics, evolution, computers... and how many are there about chemical reactivity?

How many chemical reactivity articles are there in New Scientist, Popular Science or Scientific American?

At present, chemical reaction pedagogy – how we teach the subject – involves exposing students to chemical interactions and reactions until they understand.

I asked the members of the excellent chemistry education discussion list (sadly now defunct) "What is the simplest reaction mechanism or process you teach your students?" The most common answer was "SN2 nucleophilic substitution", exactly the example I had expected and certainly the one I was first taught at university.

So, we introduce our students to really quite involved reactions and reaction mechanisms and we explain how these example reactions proceed. It is hoped that with experience our students "will understand". Well, yes they will... once they have been immersed long enough... to receive their PhDs. This approach – in my humble opinion – leaves physicists, biologists, geologists, material scientists, medics, chemical engineers... largely in the dark about what it is that constitutes chemical reactivity.

Ralph Pearson's Hard Soft Acid Base (HSAB) principle – very unfortunately – compounded the problem. In the 1960s there was huge optimism about understanding chemical reaction science due the development of new ideas and theories:

These advances led to a "problem solved" attitude, and textbooks enthusiastically included the new material, particularly Pearson's HSAB principle which so naturally followed on from Lewis theory, valence bond (VB) theory and the valence shell electron pair repulsion (VSEPR) technique. Nearly all advanced inorganic and organic textbooks of the '70s and 80's had sections on hard and soft [Lewis] acids and bases... but now the topic is hardly mentioned at all.

As we discuss in the Chemogenesis analysis, here, Pearson's HSAB principle is limited by the fact that no physical parameter correlates with hardness across Pearson's chosen sets of species. As a consequence, the HSAB analysis is ambiguous and limited. Indeed, the failure of the over-simple and over-hyped HSAB principle has meant that theoretical chemists have not looked at this important area of physical science since the mid-nineteen seventies.

What Is The Solution?

I hold that part of the solution to understanding chemical reactions and chemical reactivity involves the analysis presented in this web book. We use a "chemistry tree" graphical metaphor:

Chemogenesis tells the step-by-step story of how structure, reactivity and mechanism emerge from the periodic table of the elements. The story logically proceeds through structure, bonding & material type, hydrogen probe experiments, congeneric series, the five reaction chemistries, the Lewis acid/base interaction matrix, and an analysis of chemical science in terms of systems theory.


Without chemogenesis, it is necessary to learn about chemical reactions and chemical reactivity by the accumulation and assimilation of facts.

With chemogenesis, sense is made of a morass of chemical reaction information and the structure of reaction chemistry space logically emerges from physics, complexity and all.


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Chemogenesis Web Book Home Page Introduction

© Mark R. Leach 1999 –

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