The Heart of the Matter

This week I made the long journey to the center of everything, where there is enough energy to kill us all. The nucleus is made up of protons and electrons held together by sheer force. This force is necessary because protons are positive and like charges repel. As they get closer to each other the force that drives them apart increases. This is artfully described by Coulomb’s law and consistently demonstrated on The Bachelor.

The only way to overcome repulsion is for protons and neutrons to generate the energy that holds them together by giving up mass. The more they give up, the stronger the bond. Not a healthy relationship model, and it’s no surprise that things get really hot when a nucleus decides to split up or join with another.

Unlike the friendly chemical reactions where electrons are shared or traded, nuclear reactions generate energy, significantly more energy than is needed to start the reaction. The energy from these reactions can be used to generate steam that drives turbines that are connected to electrical generators. It can also be used to generate vast destruction via blast, fire, and radiation. There’s no middle road in the center.

Meanwhile, I am like an electron too far from center this week and I have one more week to serve before I return home. Unlike the particles that surround me, my pull stays constant no matter the distance.

Next Up: Another Test

Through The Looking Glass

Inspired by circumstance, and Wendell Berry, I am learning new skills every week. I know how to halter an uncooperative horse, spot a deer rub, make a decent loaf of bread, repair and paint a deck, color my own hair, and plant a tree in rocky soil.  Hopefully I can also learn to drive the tractor, memorize Planck’s constant, and understand Quantum Mechanics.

Quantum Mechanics describes the behavior of electrons as they surround the nucleus. This minute understanding has lead to gigantic inventions like lasers, the atomic clock, transistors, ultra-precise thermometers and even randomness generators. Everything in our world hinges on the exchange and retention of electrons, particles that we can’t even see. Fortunately, we can measure how much energy it takes to move any given electron in any given element. That knowledge has helped us map the patterns that electrons follow. These are officially called ‘orbitals’ and not ‘orbits’ because we do not know their exact path. We do know, thanks to Schrodinger, the areas in which they are most likely to appear. The unofficial term, from Sal Kahn, is ‘schmear’.

The larger the atom, the more schmears are needed to contain the electrons. Schmears are shaped like spheres, dumbbells, and inner tubes. Electrons are completely predictable in the matters of direction of spin, quantity, and sequence of schmear fill. I don’t have any difficulty following the logic and the math that led to the theory of Quantum Mechanics. But when I read that while we can predict the patterns, we still don’t understand the underlying cause of these patterns, I puzzle. When I stop to consider that everything solid is in vibration and that most of the atom consists of the empty space between the nucleus and the electrons, I puzzle some more. Richard Feynman, the late great physicist and White Rabbit said; ” I think I can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Mechanics.”

Oh well. Two out of three will have to do.

Next Up: The Heart of the Matter

A Quantum Leap

The autonomy of on-line learning is intoxicating and disorienting. I was irritated when I could not get an answer to a simple question this week from my pricey certification program: “How was the value of v used in the equation example on page 5 of Chapter 2.4 generated?” Later that same morning I was overwhelmed by the gift of Salman Kahn delivering the best Chemistry lecture I have ever heard in my life at his site that promises to be “Completely Free, Forever.” This landscape of learning gets curiouser and curiouser every day; a Wonderland not unlike the world of Chemistry in the early 1900’s.

Thanks to classic physics, we were mostly comfortable with our models of matter (particles) and light (waves).  However, there were four behaviors that consistently did not fit and we knew that if we didn’t understand all of it then we didn’t understand any of it. So Planck proposed that in some situations, solids act like waves. Even though his math checked out, this was at such odds with accepted theory that even he did not accept his findings. Then Einstein used Planck’s model, and his constant, and applied it successfully to light waves. Black Body Radiation, the Photoelectric Effect, Absorption and Emission of Light, and Atomic Structure and Stability were solved! The Theory of Quantum Mechanics was born, where light is made of particles and solids are in constant vibration. I am still a little disoriented but I am looking forward to taking a closer look next week.

Next Up: Through the Looking Glass

Inside The Great City

This week my life was in the barns and farms of rural Missouri, but my mind was in the bustling metropolis of The Periodic Table. It has almost doubled since Mendeleev, now at 115 and counting. Since the 1860’s, we changed the addresses to Atomic Number, got better at calculating Atomic Mass, and added several new neighborhoods.

This grew to a city like New York, with something for every one. Are you a salt-of-the-earth type? Head over to the Alkali neighborhood. Is your group eclectic, colorful, active, and includes all three phases? You must be a Halogen or a Unitarian. Are you content to stay at home most nights? You would be welcomed by the introverted Noble Gases. And if just plain crazy appeals, take a walk on the wild side with the Lanthanides and Actinides. They are complicated, volatile and radioactive.

The true magic of the Periodic Table is that it led to understanding the reason behind this pattern of behavior. Atoms, just like the rest of us, need balanced energy. Too much energy (electrons) and they will give it away. Not enough energy and they will bond with anyone within reach.

I also learned about the online city of teachers. Even though my closest neighbor is 5 miles away, the emailed classroom tips, compliments, and comments made this place a little less remote and I am truly appreciative. And the true magic of my life happened ten years ago today. Happy Anniversary, Patrick! Who knew that a Philosopher/Poet and and Engineer would have such great chemistry?

Next Up: The Quantum Leap