Chemistry subdistribution

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setht
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Chemistry subdistribution

Post by setht »

About a year ago, we had a thread where people complained about a perceived overabundance of organic chemistry questions at tournaments (especially packet-submission tournaments) and discussed various possible responses, including widening the scope of "quizbowl chemistry" and cutting down on the number of chemistry questions per packet.

At the time, I came down in favor of maintaining 1/1 chemistry per round and then widening the scope of topics that are accepted as chemistry for quizbowl purposes to help reduce the number of those organic chemistry questions people keep complaining about. I continue to hold that position; the good news since last year is that there have been some recent tournaments (in particular, the recent Lederberg Memorial science event) that seem to have made a conscious effort to restrict the fraction of chemistry questions on organic chemistry and cast the net a bit wider for other good chemistry topics.

I'm not a chemist. I have taken precisely one collegiate chemistry course in my life: an upper-division physical chemistry course on statistical mechanics. I've had some earth science and astronomy courses that included aspects of geochemistry and astro/cosmochemistry, but that hasn't been something I've focused on. With those caveats in mind, my feeling (bolstered a bit by asking for Selene's opinion on the matter this morning) is that organic chemistry "deserves" something like 1/3 to 1/2 of the chemistry questions in an ideal tournament set. On top of that, not every organic chemistry question should be on a named reaction or a functional group--there should be occasional organic chemistry questions on concepts (e.g. aromaticity), rules, etc. It's probably true that most organic chemistry questions ought to be on named reactions and functional groups, but not every single one.

My impression is that chemistry bonuses tend to do a better job of regulating the amount of organic chemistry questions (and the number of reaction/functional group o-chem questions) than tossups. I imagine this is because people find it easy to write tossups on reactions or functional groups where they can generate a bunch of tossup text by giving a laundry list of related reactions; easier than trying to write an innovative tossup on "boiling-point elevation" or whatever. I want to encourage people to make an effort, at least on occasion, to forgo the "named reaction alphabet soup" route and try writing on other areas of chemistry. I also want to encourage writers and editors to consider widening the scope of quizbowl chemistry to include physical chemistry and possibly some areas of biochemistry, to allow such exploration.

It seems to me that physical chemistry shares quite a bit of common ground with thermodynamics/statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics as they are taught in physics. It also seems to me that physics is not hurting for answer/clue space; if we decided to classify every stat/quantum mech question that covers material seen in p-chem courses as a chemistry question I don't think it would be much harder for people to continue writing physics questions at the current quality level, and I think it would help a number of teams write better (and more varied) chemistry questions. If there are any teams out there that have an easy time writing chemistry questions and struggle to write physics questions, presumably they could go the other way and write a non-p-chem chemistry tossup and then a physics tossup covering material from the intersection of physics and p-chem. I imagine something similar could occur with biochemistry, since I don't think bio is hurting for answer/clue space either, but I don't know enough about this to say anything particularly useful about if/how this should be implemented.

Jumping back to praising the Lederberg set: I looked through the first 6 rounds (haven't played the last 2 yet), and I counted 26 chemistry tossups in the first 20 of those packets. Of those 26 tossups, 10 were organic chemistry questions on named reactions or functional groups, with a handful more (four or less, I think--I'm not sure how to classify some of these) of other organic chemistry questions on other sorts of topics. There were also some questions on "biologically-important chemical compounds" included in that count of 26; I'm not 100% sure they were intended as chemistry, but I suspect they were. I didn't count any p-chem type questions as chemistry, but it's possible that some of the stat/quantum mech. tossups in the set were intended as chemistry. In any case, it seems clear that organic chemistry got about 50% of the chemistry tossups, with about 40% of the chemistry tossups specifically on named o-chem reactions or functional groups. Obviously Lederberg had some tossups that pushed the envelope on answer difficulty, but I don't think the non-organic chemistry questions were systematically harder than any other part of the set. It's also worth noting that Eric produced approximately two full tournaments' worth of chemistry for Lederberg. If we could get more people to follow his lead on looking into other areas of chemistry for answers and start including some amount of p-chem and biochem material in what we accept as chemistry, I think we should have little trouble producing plenty of sets of chemistry questions that aren't overrun by o-chem.

-Seth
Seth Teitler
Formerly UC Berkeley and U. Chicago
President and Chief Editor, NAQT
Emeritus member, ACF

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Mechanical Beasts
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Re: Chemistry subdistribution

Post by Mechanical Beasts »

setht wrote:It seems to me that physical chemistry shares quite a bit of common ground with thermodynamics/statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics as they are taught in physics. It also seems to me that physics is not hurting for answer/clue space; if we decided to classify every stat/quantum mech question that covers material seen in p-chem courses as a chemistry question I don't think it would be much harder for people to continue writing physics questions at the current quality level, and I think it would help a number of teams write better (and more varied) chemistry questions. If there are any teams out there that have an easy time writing chemistry questions and struggle to write physics questions, presumably they could go the other way and write a non-p-chem chemistry tossup and then a physics tossup covering material from the intersection of physics and p-chem. I imagine something similar could occur with biochemistry, since I don't think bio is hurting for answer/clue space either, but I don't know enough about this to say anything particularly useful about if/how this should be implemented.
This is precisely what I usually try to do; this is in large part because a large swath of chemistry is actually pretty dull outside of a physical or biochemical context, but also to keep the amount of organic chemistry down.

One strategy I used with FIST was to encourage all the experienced teams (if they asked me for suggestions about what to write on) to write on something other than organic chemistry. I can't say how frequently this happened, since I don't know where my answer spreadsheet went, but it worked pretty well; I certainly then had space to let less experienced teams write organic chemistry/ I was able to write fast replacement tossups when I needed to, both of which are good fhings.
Andrew Watkins

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