Life, Death, and Chemistry

Look around – can you imagine how many chemical reactions are happening before your eyes at this very moment? Some materials are synthesizing and some are decomposing. Some compounds are swapping molecules and some may combust. Without these reactions and our ability to predict them, there would be a smaller staff at Downton Abbey, tonic would stay fizzy, nausea would last, and the New Year would be quiet.

The most important example of synthesis occurs when hydrogen and oxygen molecules combine to make water. This is as simple and profound as creation itself. A less inspirational example of synthesis is the formation of tarnish that occurs when silver reacts with sulfur in the air to make silver sulfide. Chemists call this 2Ag + S —> Ag2S and Lord Grantham calls it a steady job.

A sad example of decomposition is the spontaneous decay of carbonic acid (H2CO3) into carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. This is why that large bottle of tonic that you have been saving for the summer G&T’s may ultimately disappoint: H2CO3 ——> CO2 + H2O.

The most interesting reactions happen when compounds swap, or replace, molecules to form new substances. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) in the stomach makes us queasy until calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2) arrives. Oh what a relief it is when the acid is neutralized into two products that are much easier on the stomach: calcium chloride (CaCl2) and water,  2(HCl) + Ca(OH)2 ———> CaCl2 + 2(H2O).

For sheer drama, however, no reaction can match combustion. Fireworks are made with gunpowder that produces  heat and noise and metals that produce color. Copper shows blue, lithium and strontium red, and magnesium and aluminum are white when combusted. Combustion reactions produce much more energy than is required to start them and they need a lot of oxygen. Drama turns to danger when materials spontaneously combust, which happens when enough heat is generated by the reaction to ignite the materials at hand. This can happen with the right combination of microbes, moisture, heat and hay.

The laboratory of my life got a lot more reactive this week as I am making plans to use my favorite Christmas gift:  a Chemistry Set with enough equipment and reagents to conduct 333 experiments. My husband (aka Santa) has offered to help me set up an area in the garage and has even volunteered to be my assistant on the condition that I call him ‘Igor’. It’s all about the chemistry.

One Week, Two Tests, and End Behavior

Stop the presses – I was out sick last week! But at least with on-line study I didn’t have to bring the teacher a note from the doctor and at my age I didn’t have to convince my parents that I was too sick to study. By Monday I was back at it, fueled by test anxiety and dreams of greatness.

I did much better this time on my chapter test, mostly due to over-preparation. I did not realize that the test materials included the Periodic Table, a List of Equations, and the Standard Reduction Potentials. On my next test I will have to strike a medium between the extremes of over-kill and under-prep but for now I’m enjoying the small victory.

Another test that I passed was a day of substitute teaching four levels of algebra at a local rural high school. In preparation, I observed the teacher for a day and met with him twice to create the lesson plans. I taught 6 classes, answered questions, gave 2 tests, fixed laptops, ate lunch in 20 minutes, calmed down some rowdies, and learned a lot about quadratic equations. Watching the students, I felt sympathetic when I recognized some of my own testing extremes. At the end of the day I had many more questions about teaching than I had in the morning.

My favorite concept of the day was End Behavior. This is the question: For any given function, what does ‘Y’ do when ‘X’ approaches positive and negative infinity? It’s difficult to imagine the ends without knowing the middle, especially when most functions, like life, are not linear. So next week I’ll stay in the middle, prepare for the next tests, and leave infinity to the mathematicians.

Next Up: The Ties That Bind

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

Will You Be My Neighbor?

My new glasses arrived this week. Let’s hope my spelling improves.

This week’s lesson was The Periodic Table. And with that sentence, I just lost most of my readers. Those of you still with me – imagine the vague underlying sense of discontent that haunted the chemists all through the 1860’s as they kept discovering elements, 63 in all, but without hope of reaching a greater understanding.

I used to work for a scientist who often said “Simple is best, unless it’s wrong.” Dimitri Mendeleev created the first Periodic Table simply and correctly by arranging the elements in ascending order of atomic mass. In doing so, he unlocked a powerful secret about those 63 and all that came after. The elements had a pattern and it was a pattern of eights. 

Just like my new glasses, Mendeleev’s list made everything in the world a little clearer. The elements suddenly looked like neighbors, grouped together by common interests and behavior. Holes in the list were simply houses under construction waiting for germanium, gallium, and scandium to arrive.

This begged a much larger question: What other neighborhoods were out there and just how large was this city?

Next Up: Inside The Great City


I visited the Marian Koshland Science Museum today in DC for inspiration and courage. She was a brilliant researcher and teacher in the fields of immunology and molecular biology and was devoted to improving public understanding of science.

I took a memory test (passed with flying colors), guessed the sugar amount in a variety of bottled drinks (barely passed that one), and tested the amount of energy wasted by conventional light bulbs. Nice and tangible.

So how will I communicate the invisible miracle of Chemistry? The elegance of the double-helix, the puzzle of the Periodic Table, the simple genius of The Pill, the universality of Avogadro’s mole, the heroism of vaccines?

My metro stop appears and I realize that I am way ahead of myself. First, I should download my study materials.