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A Cambridge Comp Sci Tries Chemistry

No Chemistry students were harmed in the writing of this article.

Inspired by one of my supervisors, I decided to attempt to be a Nat Sci for a day. What is the one subject both Bio Nat Scis and Phys Nat Scis often take? Chemistry! So that’s exactly where I was headed.

The entrance leading to the BMS lecture theatre. Image credits: LT Stockmann

The Chemistry department, located on Lensfield Road, was already familiar to me as I have Maths B lectures there. Not much is to be said about the building which looks like most other department buildings. After walking, I picked up a bright orange copy of the lecture notes and I felt ready to be (or ready to attempt to be) a real chemist. Whilst waiting for the lecture to start, I enjoyed reading through the biographies of successful Women in Chemistry working on cool and interesting sounding things, perhaps the Computer Science department should start doing that too.

The lecture notes. Image credits: LT Stockmann

For those of you who haven’t been in the Bristol-Myers Squibb lecture theatre before, it is massive. In comparison to Maths B lectures or any Computer Science lecture I’ve been to, it was packed despite the fact that it was a 9 am lecture which was also apparently recorded. Maybe there is just a never-ending supply of Chemistry students, or they value attending lectures more than CompScis do. Who really knows?

The lecture that day was called “Kinetics of Chemical Reactions”, which I thought would be something like Kinematics which I found pretty fun when I did Physics. However, this was Chemistry and Kinetics as I soon found out was just rates of reactions and how to determine rate constants. The amount of maths used surprised me, most of the lecture was spent rearranging formulas, using the rate law, integrating them and then turning them into the y = mx + c form we all know and love.

All the maths used was pretty simple and easy to follow but everything had meaning. It was interesting to see, mathematics as purely a means to an end and a part of something bigger. It was not about the maths problem but the experiment behind it and so the lecturer explained various ways of designing experiments to make mathematics simpler. He also noted that, “there is never an easy win”, and that such changes are harder to measure. Chemistry seems to be about finding an equilibrium between limitations in mathematics and limitations of measurements.

Eventually, it got to the demonstration part of the lecture, maybe this is what keeps Chemistry students so awake and focused at 9am. I should’ve known it would be anticlimactic when the equipment for the experiment was a kettle and a cup. The lecturer put some fizzy tablets into a cup, filled it with hot water and put a lid on it. Ten seconds later to cap flew two meters into the air, demonstrating that higher temperature leads to a faster reaction. Just as he returned to the centre of the podium, the cup that had been filled with cold water flew up too, eliciting mild laughter from the front of the room.

The demo was a nice break from the lecture, however, still boring compared to the videos of Rube Goldberg machines shown in my Algorithms lectures. Unfortunately, none of my NatSci friends were too keen on the idea of me being their lab partner so I was not able to attend any practicals and that one demo was the limit of my exposure to experimental chemistry. The rest of the lecture was spent discussing half-lives, more stuff about the rate law (still not quite sure what that is) and working through an example which I had forgotten to pick up a handout for. The lecture ended on time at 9:55 (and for the record, in case any supervisor or my DoS reads this, I did actually make it to my 10am Algorithms lecture on time).

The demonstration I saw. Image credits: LT Stockmann

The demonstration I had hoped to see. Image credits: Drish Chakraborty

I must admit I started the day with high expectations and perhaps they were too high. My knowledge of Chemistry is mainly built upon Breaking Bad and vague memories of Bunsen burners, flame tests and titrations in GCSE Chemistry. Chemistry is one of those subjects often glamorised in the media, but I think I learnt today there is more to a Chemistry degree than fire, explosions and the cool videos your fellow NatScis occasionally post on their Instagram stories (apparently those are just the highlights).

3/10 No explosions and actual prior knowledge required.

Feature Image photography: Kevin Xie