The transition state is the highest point of energy in a reaction. It is a fleeting moment where bonds have not fully broken and bonds have not fully formed, causing a state of impermanence.
For the past week, I’ve been diligently studying for my upcoming organic chemistry exam. Out of all the concepts I’ve extensively reviewed, my favorite one by far is that of the transition state. The concept was easier for me to grasp than many of the other topics – mostly because I saw myself within its mechanism. As I completed practice problem after practice problem, I could see my own state of high energy, tension and pressure reflected back onto the pages of my textbook, my bonds neither formed nor broken.
In the transition state, bonds begin to break. They are not fully broken but have begun their process of separation. In this specific state, these bonds are represented by dotted lines, underscoring the imminent outcome: At a later moment in time, they will not be there anymore.
I recently went home to Indiana for Fall Break, entering my house for the first time since I left it in August. As I opened the door to my room, the hardwood floors creaking underneath my feet, the first thing I registered was the smell. Rather than my room smelling like my room, it had a distinct smell to it — one that was foreign to the olfactory receptors within my nostrils. Standing in the doorway with that alien odor wafting through my nose, I felt weird. I was in my childhood bedroom, a space that has grown with me throughout the years. The different eras of my life are showcased on its lavender walls and white furniture, depicting my evolution as a human being. Every inch was so familiar that I could almost convince myself that nothing had changed. But the strange scent floating around me – a mixture of citrus cleaner and a cinnamon pumpkin candle– gave me an indication that that room I had entered was not the same one I had closed the door on in August.
I did not feel like I was coming home to a space that was my own — a space that witnessed my adolescent life’s saddest moments and soaked up my tears but also saw me during my most joyful memories. Instead, I felt like I was coming back to a version of myself and my life that did not exist anymore. I view my childhood bedroom as a physical representation of my bond with home, and for the past year that bond has been strong, allowing me to believe that my connection with my small town in Indiana was not altered by me leaving for my freshman year of college last fall. But now, the hints of A Thousand Wishes body spray from Bath & Body Works that I would douse myself in every day in high school has disappeared, along with the scent of my favorite Yankee Candle — Clean Cotton — that I would light while I was completing my college applications. As I’ve continued through my sophomore year, it’s become apparent this bond is changing. It hasn’t fully broken yet, but it’s not as strong as it once was.
As bonds break, new bonds begin to form. Also represented with dotted lines, these amorphous bonds highlight that, at the end of the transition state, there will be a completely new product formed.
When I returned to my Ann Arbor apartment after Fall Break, I was met with a smell that I was overwhelmingly more familiar with. Hints of pine and cashmere drifted around me as I dragged my suitcase inside my tiny bedroom that I share with my roommate. Out of breath and exhausted from my flight, I stood in the middle of my room with my hands on my hips, taking in every nook and cranny. All four walls were beige, with no memorabilia on them to foster any sense of home or comfort. On my desk, there was nothing but a fake plant — my sad excuse for “spicing up” the place. It was quite different from the poster-filled lavender room with books and half-complete paintings that I had just left behind in Indiana. I was struck by discomfort as I stood here — in a space that is mine but that I feel I cannot call my own.
Yet, this environment is the only one in Ann Arbor that is almost wholly mine, and thus, it is the physical representation of my bond with Michigan. This room only has the items I find necessary to function — a couple of books, hair products, contact lenses — but does not have anything else. This space holds a lot of emotional weight, as it grounds me to my identity as a college student. This room has seen me at my lowest, after I failed an exam or cried my eyes out after being homesick. It’s the place in Ann Arbor where I have been at my most vulnerable, but also my most resilient. But, it is still strange to exist in; I find that I go through the motions when I am in this room, only really utilizing it to do work or get ready. I don’t lounge in there — I don’t read or watch a show or simply exist — but instead feel a pressure to constantly do something. The discomfort I feel when I’m in my room is emphasized by the fact that I share it. It does not feel like my room because it truly is not my room; at this point, it is a shared space me and my roommate utilize to advance our lives. There is a bond here, but it is not fully formed, signifying the disconnect that accompanies me as I stand in the center of my room but am not fully present.
For reactants to become products, they must overcome the energy barrier of the transition state. Once reactants have passed through the transition state, they will always continue to form products.
Transition states are inherently intimidating and uncomfortable because they contain the physical change one must go through in order to get from point A to point B. In a transition state, you are forced to confront aspects of your life and yourself that you are not comfortable with. Transitions push you to expand your scope of the world in a way that can be emotionally strenuous and difficult. But, as in organic chemistry, transitions are inevitable; to have a reaction in the first place, you must go through a transition state.
Unlike in chemistry, transition states in real life last far longer than a quadrillionth of a second. For the past year and a half, I’ve treated my college experience like a permanent transition state; I’ve never really allowed new bonds to form due to the fear of breaking old ones. I don’t regret this period or wish that I had adopted a different mindset — I needed this transient moment in time to allow myself to acclimate to all the changes I’ve experienced.
In this state of instability, I’ve found myself yearning for the lost places of the past. I sense a gap, a lapse: I am here, but not present, constantly existing with one foot in older, more familiar places and existing with one foot inside my childhood bedroom. Or perhaps just my childhood. There is an intensity in the loneliness I experience, being disconnected from a place I knew and that knew me, as well as a chaotic element to the insecurity I feel about my current self and my decisions. Overall, there is a hesitance to everything I do because I am so unsure of where it will lead me. But now, after stepping back, fully, into that childhood bedroom, I think it’s time to finally overcome that barrier and continue towards the end product. Over Fall Break, I could sense that the old bonds were near broken.
My roommates and I are now looking for housing for the upcoming school year. As we filter through apartments, duplexes and houses that fit our needs, I’ve found that the only thing on my personal wishlist is a room that I can finally call my own. I can already imagine this space, with collages of collected postcards tacked to the walls and my stuffed frog resting peacefully on a floral comforter. But more than that, now that I’m ready to leave this transitional period, I long for a space where I can truly allow a bond to fully form. I long to stop holding everything at arm’s length. I wish to give myself the space to enjoy my life here, with the friendships, memories and hardships that accompany it, without holding on so tightly to the past. I want to be present in the spaces I operate in, whether it be my clubs, my apartment or my classes, and I long to create an experience here that fills my cup up. I want to come back to a place where I can be enveloped in a comforting smell and be vulnerable, allowing my personality to be showcased on the walls and the shelves and the windows. I want to allow myself to form my end product, where bonds have been broken, but where bonds have also been formed.
At the end of the transition state, the bonds of the past are fully dissipated. The new bonds are fully formed and the end product is ready to begin another reaction.
Statement Columnist Ananya Gera can be reached at email@example.com.