Tag Archives: science

Friluftsliv: Norway’s search for true nature

There’s an interesting psychological quirk that makes us yearn for a benevolent, caring Mother Nature that can cure our ailments without any side effects. Academics call it the “naturalness preference” or “biophilia”, and the Norwegians call it “friluftsliv” (literally: free-air-life).

Friluftsliv began in 18th century Scandanavia as part of a romantic “back-to-nature” movement for the upper classes. Urbanisation and industrialisation in the 19th century disconnected Norwegians from a natural landscape to which they’d been so interconnected for over five thousand years.

Norway’s sparse population, vast landscapes and midnight sun (in the summer months, at least) make it an excellent place for hunting and exploration. These ideal conditoins produced some of the greatest trekkers and hikers the world has ever seen. I’ll show you two heart-warming examples.

The first is Norway’s infamous explorer Fritjof Nansen, who (very nearly) reached the north pole in 1896 as part of a three-year expedition by ship, dog-sled and foot. When world war one broke out, Nansen put his trekking knowledge into practice by helping European civilians escape the perils of war and move to safer places. He facilitated several logistical operations in the early 20th century that saw the movements of millions of civilians across Europe. When famine broke out in Russia in 1921, he arranged the transportation of enough food to save 22 million people from starvation in Russia’s remotest regions. Deservedly, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his efforts.

The second example is Norway’s Roald Amundsen, who was the first person to reach the south pole in 1911. Nansen lent his ship, Fram, to Amundsen for a north pole expedition in 1909. Before Amundsen set sail, however, he learned that two rival American explorers – each accompanied by groups of native Inuit men – had already reached the north pole and were disputing the title of “first discoverer” among themselves. When Amundsen finally did set sail, he took Nansen’s Fram vessel to Antarctica instead, where he and his team disembarked and trekked a successful round-trip to the south pole. While Amundsen admits he was inspired by Nansen’s successful polar expeditions, I’m sure that Norway’s vast landscapes, summer sun and long-standing tradition of “Allemansrätten” (the right to traverse other people’s private land) also contributed to Amundsen’s yearning for friluftsliv: the obsessive search for a truly untouched wilderness. (Amundsen 1927)

The world’s first tourist organisations were founded in Norway (1868), Sweden (1885) with the goal of helping Scandinavian elites in their search for true nature. When the Industrial Revolution brought many indoor, sedentary factory jobs to Scandinavia, workers craved the outdoors that their culture had been in harmony with for thousands of years. Elites in the late 19th century signed up to go on expeditions to escape encroaching urbanisation. Later, in 1892, a group of Swedish soldiers founded the non-profit organisation Friluftsfrämjandet, which provided outdoor recreational activities to the labouring classes with a particular emphasis on giving free skiing lessons to children. Thanks to Friluftsfrämjandet, and the working-time legislations that came into play in the early 20th century, the middle and lower classes were finally able to pursue their obsession with finding nature, or friluftsliv.

“…[W]e arrange activities to win great experiences, together. We hike, bike, walk, climb, paddle, ski and skate together. We train the best outdoor guides and instructors in Sweden. And we have fun together!” (Friluftsfrämjandet 2017)

Hans Gelter, Associate Professor at Luleå University of Technology, writes that even friluftsliv has become commodified in the age of consumerism. He claims that the high prices commanded for outdoor equipment and transportation to remote places act as a barrier between hikers and the nature they claim to be seeking. (Gelter 2000) In Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (1985), Timothy Luke argues that outdoor pursuits are now more about testing fancy equipment than finding a deep connection with Mother Nature. Snowboarding is now more about testing the latest boards and wearing eye-catching outfits than it is about enjoying pristine mountain vistas. Golf is now as much about donning luxury clothing brands and using expensive golf clubs as it is about enjoying the outdoors. Even many shower gels and body washes now contain a drop of lemon essence or avocado oil – for which you pay an extra dollar – that adds nothing to the utility of the product. We do this because we crave nature in an industrialised world.

My book Fighting Chemophobia (coming at the end of 2017) is approaching 60,000 words in length. Copious reading and lively discussions with many colleagues and academics is helping to shape the stories in the book.

Follow me on twitter to stay up-to-date with the book’s progress.

Fighting Chemophobia

Bananas contain unpronounceable ingredients, too. Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana by James Kennedy

It’s been exactly three years since I uploaded the original banana poster.

In 2014, I soon followed up with podcasts, radio appearances, press interviews, a T-shirt Store and twelve more fruit ingredient labels. I’ve done six more customised fruit ingredients labels for private clients. The images have since appeared in textbooks, corporate promotional material, YouTube videos, T-shirts, mugs and aprons.

Momentum built in 2015. Parodies emerged online, and a copycat image appeared in one Chemistry textbook. I started writing about chemophobia and consulting with experts on how to address the issue. In short, it’s very, very complicated, and has deep evolutionary origins. I set a goal to understand chemophobia and provide a roadmap to tackle it effectively.

In 2016, my voluminous OneNote scribblings turned into a book. I have a first draft saved on OneDrive (thank you for keeping it safe, Microsoft) and I’ll be proofreading it on an long-haul intercontinental flight for you later today.

My next book, tentatively titled “Fighting Chemophobia”, will be published in late 2017.

I promise that my book “Fighting Chemophobia” will contain the following:

  • Stories you can share on a first date;
  • Maths – but just a little;
  • Chemistry – but not too much;
  • A deep exploration of chemophobia’s roots;
  • Tangible solutions to chemophobia;
  • More stories. Lots of true stories.

This “Fighting Chemophobia” book is for:

  • Educated people who are interested in a fascinating, growing social phenomenon;
  • People who want to settle the ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ debate;
  • Chemistry people;
  • People who love reading.

To get your hands on a copy, subscribe to this blog for email updates. Just click ‘Follow’ somewhere on this page (its location depends on which device you’re using).

I promise that throughout 2017, you’ll receive teasers, snippets and discarded book fragments via this blog to get you excited.

Let’s add oxygen, fluorine and neon gases

Oxygen from Theodore Gray's amazing book, The Elements
Oxygen from Theodore Gray’s amazing book, The Elements

This post concludes the Periodic Table Smoothie experiment.

Recall that we’ve just finished adding one mole of nitrogen gas and created a bizarre boron polymer at the bottom of our vessel. The temperature was 350 °C and the pressure in our vessel was 891 kPa.

Today, we’re going to add 1.00 mole of oxygen gas, stand back and observe.

Nothing happens.

This is disappointing news.

Many of the substances in our vessel react (more accurately, explode) in the presence of oxygen but the ignition temperature for all of those explosions to take place is at least 500 °C. The temperature of our vessel is set at just 350 °C. At this temperature, nothing would actually happen.

There’s not enough activation energy to break bonds in the reactant particles in order to get the reaction started. We call this activation energy (EA) in chemistry. If we were to add a source of excessive heat (e.g. a matchstick), the vessel would explode.

Should we heat up the vessel to 500 °C and blow up the experiment right here?

If we did, the following reactions would happen:

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Enough of these reactions – particularly the first three – are sufficiently exothermic to trigger a chain reaction – at least up to the reaction of oxygen with beryllium carbide. The vessel would bang, explode, and shatter. The helium would float away, dangerous lithium amide would fly out sideways, and polyborazine powder, whatever that is, would land on the floor.

Let’s not ignite our experiment – not yet.

Conclusion after adding 1.00 mole of oxygen gas

Substance Amount in mol
He(g) 1.000
Be(s) 0.514
LiH(s) 0.000
Li2C2(s) 0.272
B2H6(g) 0.000
Be2C(s) 0.175
H2(g) 0.007
BeC2(s) 0.136
CH4(g) 0.009
N2(g) 0.552
NH3(g) 0.154
LiNH2(s) 0.277
polyborazine 12.194 grams

Pressure: 891 kPa (higher than before due to the addition of nitrogen gas)
Temperature: 350 °C (vessel is still being maintained at constant temperature)

Oxygen was relatively uneventful. Let’s add fluorine and see what happens.

Let’s add fluorine gas

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Elements by Theodore Gray

The following three reactions would all occur as 1.00 mole of fluorine gas is added:

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These two products are quite interesting:

  • HF, hydrogen fluoride, an aqueous solution of which was used by Breaking Bad’s Walter White to dissolve evidence (his victims)
  • NF3, nitrogen trifluoride, is used as an etching agent when making printed circuit boards (PCBs)

Let’s add neon gas

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Elements by Theodore Gray

When 1.00 mole of neon gas is added, the total pressure inside the vessel increases but no reaction occurs. The concentrations of all the other gases present are unaffected.

The End

That concludes our Periodic Table Smoothie experiment. The most interesting conclusion was the discovery of polyborazine, the bizarre solid that collected at the bottom of the vessel.

Also of interest was how easily we created ammonia, one of the simplest of biological compounds, just by mixing elements together. Could the compounds necessary for life be so easy to create that their existence is an inevitable consequence of the Big Bang? Is life inevitable? If the Big Bang were to happen all over again, would life occur? And would it look any different?

Possibly not.

We Lied To You

Click to download the book
click-here

This book contains 50 lies taught in the VCE Chemistry course.

These lies include well-meaning simplifications of the truth, mistakes in the textbook, and, in a few extreme cases, blatant falsehoods.

This book isn’t a criticism of the VCE Chemistry course at all. In fact, I just want to highlight the sheer complexity of Chemistry and the need to make sweeping generalisations at every level so it can be comprehensible to our students. This is a legitimate practice called constructivism in pedagogical circles. (Look that up.)

Many of these ‘lies’ taught at VCE level will be debunked by your first-year chemistry lecturers at university.

Here’s a preview of some of the lies mentioned in the book. Check out all 50 by clicking the download link at the bottom of the page.


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lie-15


lie-25


we-lied-to-you-cover-lightbulbs

click-here


SUVAT rearranged

SUVAT Rearranged. Traditional SUVAT equations are highlighted yellow. Copy this to your cheat sheet!
SUVAT Rearranged. Traditional SUVAT equations are highlighted yellow. Copy this to your cheat sheet!

There are just five traditional SUVAT equations:

Traditional set of five SUVAT equations

Save time in your examination by looking up the relevant equation from this table instead of rearranging them manually.

Click here to download free PDF to put on your Physics Cheat Sheet

Pre-order my second book “We Lied To You” here

Pre-order here
Pre-order here

The content you’re learning now is probably not as true as it seems. Chemistry is a set of models that explain the macro level sometimes at the expense of detail. The more you study Chemistry, the more precise these models become, and they’ll gradually enlighten you with a newfound clarity about the inner workings of our universe. It’s profound.

Rules taught as ‘true’ usually work 90% of the time in this subject. Chemistry has rules, exceptions, exceptions to exceptions, and exceptions to those – you’ll need to peel pack these layers of rules and exceptions like an onion until you reach the core, where you’ll find Physics and Specialist Maths.

Enjoy this book. I hope it emboldens you to question everything you’re told, and encourages you to read beyond the courses you’re taught in school.

Pre-order the FREE e-book by filling in the form here.

Get my latest book here: Common VCE Chemistry Mistakes… and how to avoid them

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This book is a collection of common mistakes in VCE Chemistry and how to avoid them.

It comes from years of marking student SACs and exam papers, and from reading Examination Reports from the VCAA as well.

It’s free of charge, very informative, and very concise.

Click here to download the FREE book.

Mystery supervolcano is at the root of the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype

The Mad Scientist stereotype was caused ultimately by a supervolcano that nobody can locate to this day
The Mad Scientist stereotype was caused ultimately by a supervolcano that nobody can locate to this day

In 1808, a massive volcano erupted somewhere on Earth. So large was the eruption that it bellowed sulfate particles into the atmosphere that caused significant global cooling in the years that followed (Guevara-Murua 2014). Despite its gargantuan size, nobody to this day has been able to locate the volcano or find any direct eyewitness accounts of its eruption. The volcanic eruption of 1808 remains an unresolved scientific mystery to this day.

How do we know this mystery volcano ever erupted at all? The first piece of evidence is an increase in sulfuric acid concentration found in Greenland ice cores, which are a characteristic ‘chemical signature’ of sulfur-rich volcanic eruptions (Dai 1991). The only major spike in sulfuric acid concentration in Greenland ice that doesn’t align with a real volcanic eruption observed somewhere on Earth is the spike found around 1808, suggesting the existence of this mysterious volcano.

The second piece of evidence is called the ‘sulfur isotope anomaly’. Deposits of sulfur buried deep underground have a different isotopic composition compared with sulfur sources on the planet’s surface. In the same way that we can monitor the effects of fossil fuel combustion on atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, we can quantify the amount of sulfur emitted from volcanoes by measuring changes in the relative quantity of sulfur-33. A huge spike in Δ33S suggests an enormous volcanic eruption occurred – and that’s exactly what we see when we study samples from the year 1808.

The third piece of evidence comes from trees. Trees grow at different rates depending on the climate. In particular, trees grow faster when it’s warmer (but not too hot, of course, which inhibits their growth somewhat), and they grow more slowly when it’s cold. Counting tree rings can reveal not only the age of the tree, but measuring the thickness of each tree ring allows researchers to estimate the amount of growth the tree accomplished in a given year. By measuring different trees in the same region, researchers can gain insight into the past climate of that particular region. Analysis of tree rings has shown that bristlecone pine trees had drastically decreased growth rates in the summer of 1809, suggesting the climate cooled significantly around that time (Salzer 2007). Cooling might have been caused by a giant volcano.

While none of this evidence amounts to a direct observation that the mystery supervolcano ever erupted, we do have eyewitness accounts of volcanic ejecta from exactly the same time. All the evidence, taken together, definitely points to the fact that the supervolcano did in fact exist. Scientists, in fact, are certain.

The first eyewitness account was written a highly respected Colombian scientist called Francisco José de Caldas, who described “a transparent cloud that obstructs the sun’s brilliance” over Colombia for several months from December 1808 to February 1809. The second eyewitness was a physician named José Hipólito Unanue who wrote about seeing “sunset afterglows” over Peru in the same time period. Both these observations are characteristic of large volcanic eruptions.

The fact that atmospheric haze was observed in both Colombia and Peru, which are in the southern and northern hemispheres respectively, suggest that this volcano was located somewhere in the tropics. These observations imply that ash was cast 2,600 km in all directions but the effect on the climate was global. One researcher is quoted as saying the mystery volcano “blanketed the planet in ash”. (Cole-Dai n.d.)

Vulcanologists rate volcanic eruptions on a scale called VEI (volcanic explosivity index), which is similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes. It’s a logarithmic scale that approximates the volume of ash that’s ejected by a particular eruption. The logarithmic nature of the scale means that while a VEI-3 eruption is called “severe”, a VEI-4 event is called “cataclysmic”. In 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, resulting in ash cloud so large that it caused severe delays to air traffic across Europe, Greenland, Russia and eastern Canada. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption was a VEI-4 (“cataclysmic”) event.

When Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1908, killing 57 people and causing $1.1 billion of damage across Canada and the US, it was classified by vulcanologists as a VEI-5 (“paroxysmic”) event. Alarmingly, the mystery volcano in 1808 was at least 10 times more devastating than Mount Saint Helens in terms of the volume of ash ejected. The mystery volcano was a VEI-6 event, and it’s described by vulcanologists as “colossal”.

Volcanic ash acts “like a giant window shade, reflecting sunlight and lowering temperatures on the ground for years afterward” (Cole-Dai n.d.). Temperatures across Europe were measurably lower in the years that followed as the ash cloud obscured incoming rays from the sun. Trees grew more slowly (as evidenced by tree ring data), harvests were diminished and the climate cooled for several years afterwards.

This cooling came at a very inconvenient time. Temperatures were already lower than usual in the northern hemisphere due to the Little Ice Age. In a further devastating blow, a second, much larger volcano erupted on April 10, 1815. It was located on Mount Tambora in Indonesia and had an intensity of VEI-7 or “super-colossal” (this is just one level away from VEI-8, which is named rather horrifyingly, “apocalyptic”). Mount Tambora’s eruption was so ‘super-colossal’ that 90% of the islanders on Tambora were killed by lava flowing down from the sky. Downpours of hot ash killed trees and fish for miles around, covering them with inches of grey dust. Hot ejecta was propelled eighteen miles into the air above the volcano producing a ‘boom’ that could be heard a thousand miles away. People across Indonesia mistook the volcanic ‘boom’ for a ship’s rescue signal or a bomb detonation. Some army officials across Indonesia’s vast archipelago even dispatched troops to defend their islands after mistaking the ongoing volcanic roar for the sound of an invading army.

The sulfur dioxide released from the super-colossal Mount Tambora explosion reacted with gases in the stratosphere to produce 100 million tons of sulfuric acid, H2SO4. The sulfuric acid condensed and remained suspended in an ‘aerosol cloud’ (basically a cloud) that was accelerated by stratospheric jet streams (basically very strong winds) until the entire globe was smeared with a thin layer of H2SO4. This is a rare event, and only happens following truly colossal volcanic eruptions. Interestingly, H2SO4 reflects incoming rays from the sun, and temperatures, which were already low as a result of the mystery supervolcano in 1808, were lowered yet again. The year 1815 was, as some writers put it, “the year without a summer”. Temperatures that year were about three degrees lower than usual across Europe, which is incredible considering that both volcanoes erupted near the equator.

If the Mount Tambora volcano was a little smaller, the sulfuric acid would have formed in the atmosphere instead, and would have rained back down to the surface as acid rain. But at stratospheric altitudes, far above the clouds, the sulfuric acid haze stayed there for years acting as a kind of sunscreen for our planet.

How does this relate to chemophobia? The combination of the Little Ice Age, the 1808 mystery eruption and the super-colossal eruption of 1815 had cooled the climate to such an extent that the weather in Lake Geneva was terrible in the summer of 1815. Who was there at the time? Mary Shelley, of course, who was staying indoors drinking because the weather was too bad to go boating. Cold, bored and disappointed at the lack of a ‘summer’ holiday, Shelley and her companions set about writing ghost stories instead. Among them was Frankenstein, which featured the original, quintessential stereotype of a mad scientist. The cliché lives on to this day.

Thanks, volcano.

Chemtrails conspiracy theory gets debunked

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Contrails or ‘chemtrails’? The myth has just been debunked

Since 1996, there has existed a niche group of conspiracy theorists in western countries that believes that the government (or some other authority) is spraying compounds out the back of commercial/military aircraft for a plethora of reasons. Seventeen percent of Americans believe a hilariously-named “SLAP” project (secret large-scale atmospheric program) exists in the United States, and 2% are ‘certain’ of its existence. Conspiracy theorists photograph normal aeroplane contrails and upload them to the internet, calling them ‘chemtrails’, and using them as evidence of SLAP.

The conspiracy theorists cite “mind control”, “radar mapping”, and “chemical weapons testing” among suspected motives, and they even have detected elevated concentrations of barium and aluminium in soil and atmosphere at certain locations. Conspiracy theorists use these chemical data to support their belief in the SLAP idea.

Just this month, the results of a comprehensive review of all the so-called evidence for contrails was conducted – by an impressive 77 experts in atmospheric chemistry – and they’ve concluded that the conspiracy theory seems highly unlikely to be true.

First, what are contrails?

Contrails are ice-clouds that emerge from the backs of jet engines on aeroplanes. They vary in width, colour and persistence depending on the temperature, air pressure and humidity.

Combustion in jet engines produces two products: water vapour, H2O(g), and carbon dioxide, CO2(g). These gases exit the jet engine and quickly lose momentum, eventually forming a trail in the air behind the aeroplane. The freezing cold temperatures at aeroplane altitudes freezes the water vapour in its tracks (but not the carbon dioxide – it’s not that cold!). A contrail is essentially a trail of snowflakes!

What did the scientists find?

Seventy-seven experts found 100% agreement that SLAP was not the simplest/most likely explanation for the following phenomena:

http://www.ess.uci.edu/~sjdavis/SLAP/
Source: http://www.ess.uci.edu/~sjdavis/SLAP/

Why am I mentioning this?

The ‘chemtrails’ conspiracy emerged as one of the most recent forms of chemophobia. It originated in 1996 when a paper was published by the United States Air Force called Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025 suggested spraying compounds from aeroplanes to help engineer the climate. This seeded the conspiracy, and ebbing public trust of experts/scientists helped it to balloon out of proportion from there.

Until this study was conducted, the scientific community had no credible evidence to the contrary: we had no rebuttal to offer the ‘chemtrails’ crowd. This study finally puts the overwhelming majority of evidence (and 76 of the 77 experts involved) in favour of there being no such SLAP project – and no ‘chemtrails’ to speak of.

Chemophobia

It’s widespread, irrational, harmful, and hard to break. One excerpt from a New York Times article on this story said:

“The goal, the researchers say, is not so much to change the minds of hard-core believers, but to provide a rebuttal — the kind that would show up in a Google search — to persuade other people to steer clear of this idea.”

This study, it seems, is aimed at the neutral 60%. This is exactly how we need to be fighting chemophobia.

Question: Have similar studies been conducted for the other forms of chemophobia that exist?

LIVE Chemophobia Session Thursday 11th August @ 2pm ET

Click to register for the free webinar
Click to register for our free webinar hosted by the American Chemical Society

What can I expect to learn?

  • What does the public think of chemistry, chemicals and chemists?
  • How prevalent is chemophobia?
  • How did we evolve the propensity to become chemophobic?
  • Who were the first chemophobes?
  • What is a “chemical”?
  • Why have chemists’ efforts to fight chemophobia been to no avail?
  • What’s the ultimate cure for chemophobia, and who’s willing to fund it?
  • What can you do as a chemist to combat chemophobia?

Registration is open

Click the above banner to register for the free webinar.

Chemists need to speak the same language as the public

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Chemists and the public need to be speaking the same language

Chemicals

The public uses the word ‘chemical’ to mean ‘synthetic substance’. Chemists have traditionally opposed this definition and stuck with ‘substance’ instead, responding with “everything is a chemical” in defence.

Arguing over definitions is futile and avoids the elephant in the room – that there’s been almost no public outreach to support the field of chemistry in the last few decades to counteract growing public skepticism of science (and of chemistry in particular).

Furthermore, it’s even more futile arguing over definitions when the Oxford English Dictionary provides a clear answer to this debate:

chemical (noun) – a distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified

I ask all chemists to embrace the dictionary definition of ‘chemical’ and stop bickering with the public over definitions.

My main concern here is that if “everything is a chemical”, then it therefore follows that ‘chemophobia’ is the fear of everything, which is nonsensical. If we’re going to talk about chemophobia, we’re also going to have to accept the definition of chemical that the OED and the public have been using for a long time: that “chemical” = “artificially prepared substance”.

So what do we call non-synthetic chemicals? Try using a word with less baggage such as “molecule”, “compound”, “substance” or “element” where it’s relevant. By using these words, we avoid the natural=good/artificial=bad divide, which is the central assumption of chemophobia.

Chemophobia

‘Chemophobia’ is an irrational aversion to chemicals perceived as synthetic.

The word ‘chemophobia’ refers to a small subset of people who are not only disenfranchised by science, but who have subscribed to alternative sources of knowledge (either ancient wisdom or – sadly – Google). Many people with chemophobia are protesting against the establishment, and this is particularly evident in the anti-GMO movement. At the core of most people who oppose GMOs is a moral/political opposition to having their food supply controlled by giant corporations. No number of scientific studies concluding the safety and reliability of GMO crops will succeed in persuading them otherwise because the anti-GMO movement is founded on moral/political beliefs, not on science. By throwing science at them, we’re wasting our time.

More important than chemophobia

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s recent report on Public Perceptions of Science showed roughly a 20-60-20 range of attitudes towards chemistry.

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No matter how the RSC phrased the question, roughly 20% of the UK public who were surveyed indicated a negative attitude towards chemistry, and another 20% showed a positive attitude. The 60% in the middle felt disconnected from the subject – maybe disliked it in school – but felt neutral towards it when asked.

Chemophobia afflicts some people in the bottom 20%. They gave negative word-associations with ‘chemistry’ (e.g. ‘accidents’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘inaccessible’).That bottom 20% group is so vocal (e.g. Food Babe) that they distract chemists from the 60% in who are neutral. The ‘neutral’ crowd is a much larger audience that’s much easier to engage/persuade through outreach efforts. We should focus on talking to them.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has said in interviews that his huge TV hit show COSMOS was aimed at “people who didn’t even know they might like science”. That’s the middle 60%. Brian Cox’s amazing Wonders of the Universe was aimed at a similar audience – but chemistry has nothing similar to offer. We’re engaging those who are already interested (with academic talks and specialist journals) and we’re engaging with the bottom 20% via social media and comments on foodbabe.com… but why haven’t we started engaging the middle 60%, who gets most of their science information from TV? How many chemistry TV icons can you name? Where are the multi-channel launches of big-budget chemistry documentaries*? Chemistry is lagging far behind biology and physics in that regard.

*BBC Four’s Chemistry: A Volatile History (2010) doesn’t count – it was only three episodes long, got no further than ‘the elements’ and was presented by a PHYSICIST!

Focus on the 60% who are ‘neutral’

I ask chemists to focus on addressing the disinterested 60%. From an outreach perspective, this is much more fun and is positive rather than reactionary. By engaging those who feel neutral about chemistry, we might even empower enough of the public to fight chemophobia (online, at least) by themselves – without our direct intervention.

I urge chemists to tell the public what you do in simple terms. Describe your work to the public. Tweet about it. Participate in your university/faculty’s YouTube videos by explaining your work and its relevance. Offer advice as a science correspondent for local media outlets (many universities have ‘expert lines’ – get involved). Give your ‘talk’ at local schools – it make a HUGE difference to students’ perceptions of science. Devote 5% of your working time to doing outreach. As a teacher, I’m practically doing it full-time.

Plus, we urgently need a chemistry TV hero. Could someone do that, too, please?

‘Chemophobia’ podcast with Sam Howarth

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Click to listen to the podcast via Soundcloud

In a debut podcast, Sam Howarth discusses with chemophobia research-enthusiast and chemistry teacher, James Kennedy, the evolution of fearing chemicals and the people who are driving it behind the scenes.

Sam Howarth is a self-taught nutrition and fitness enthusiast – a fanatic learned through trial and error over 3 years of research and over 10 years of personal struggles with food and body image.

In the podcast, we talk about chemophobia, its origins and the money that keeps it alive.

soundcloud

My iOS app is free until the end of June 2016

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Screenshot from my free iOS app

I quietly released a simple iOS app back in March 2016. It’s free to download and works on iPhone and iPads running iOS 7.0 or later.

It’s called VCE Study Tools (Chemistry) and it’s the fastest way to browse this website on a mobile device.

Get it from the App Store here.

I’m removing it from the App Store at the end of June 2016 so I can release something a little better later on. If you want the app, go ahead and download it before it’s gone!

James Kennedy's iOS app called VCE Study Tools (Chemistry) is available on the App Store

‘Chemophobia’ is irrational, harmful – and hard to break

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Kiran Foster/Flickr

We all feel a profound connection with the natural world. E O Wilson called this sensation biophilia: ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. That sense of connection brings great emotional satisfaction. It can decrease levels of anger, anxiety and pain. It has undoubtedly helped our species to survive, since we are fundamentally dependent on our surrounding environment and ecosystem. But lately, biophilia has spawned an extreme variant: chemophobia, a reflexive rejection of modern synthetic chemicals.

Continue reading this article on AEON IDEAS…

Let’s add carbon (graphite) powder

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‘Carbon’ page from Theodore Gray’s amazing book: The Elements

Today, we’re going to add 1.00 mole of carbon to our vessel. After adding boron last week, we left our vessel locked at 350 °C and with a pressure of 638 kPa. These reactions are taking place at 350 °C and constant volume (exactly 10 litres). Pressure inside the vessel will therefore change over time.

Allotropes of carbon

Carbon has various allotropes (structural arrangements of an element). Diamond is extremely strong and highly unreactive, while graphite is soft and brittle. The differences are all due to the type of bonding between carbon atoms. In diamond, carbon atoms are bonded by four strong covalent bonds with the surrounding atoms in a strong, hard three-dimensional ‘network lattice’. Graphite owes its softness and brittleness to the fact that its carbon atoms are bonded by only three strong covalent bonds in a two-dimensional ‘layer lattice’. Individual layers are very strong, but the layers can be separated by just the slightest disturbance. Touching graphite lightly onto paper will remove layers of carbon atoms and place them onto the page (such as in a pencil). Using a diamond the same way would likely tear the paper instead.

For this reason, I’m going to put graphite into the vessel instead of diamond. Diamond is so strong and inert that it’s unlikely to do any interesting chemistry in our experiment. Graphite, on the other hand, will.

The following seven chemical reactions will take place after adding carbon (graphite) powder

As soon as the carbon powder enters the vessel, it will begin to react with the following three species as follows:

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The ethyne produced in the third reaction will then react with any lithium and beryllium remaining in the vessel as follows:

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The hydrogen gas produced by the above two reactions will then react with lithium and carbon (if there’s any left) as follows:

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These reactions have the potential to all occur at the same time. Tracking them properly would require calculus and lots of kinetics data including the activation energy of each reaction and the rate constant for each equation. Quick searches on the National Chemical Kinetics Database yields no results for most of these equations, which means we won’t be able to use a computer model to calculate exact quantities of each product. Instead, I’m going to run a computer simulation using Excel that makes the following three assumptions:

  • all these reactions occur at the same rate;
  • all these reactions are first-order with respect to the limiting reagent;
  • all these reactions are zeroth-order with respect to reagents in excess.

The results will be a close approximation of reality – they’ll be as close to reality as we can get with the data that’s available.

Here are the results of the simulation

Here’s a graph of the simulation running for 24 steps. Exactly one mole of carbon powder is added at step 5.

Periodic Table Smoothie - Let's Add Carbon Carbon quickly reacts to form lithium carbide, beryllium carbide and two organic molecules: methane and ethyne
Carbon quickly reacts to form lithium carbide, beryllium carbide and two organic molecules: methane and ethyne

Summary of results

The results are incredible! We’ve made ethyne and methane, both of which have the potential to do some really interesting chemistry later on. I’m hoping that we can make some more complex organic molecules after nitrogen and oxygen are added – maybe even aminoethane – let’s see.

Hydrogen has also re-formed. I’m hoping that this gas lingers for long enough to react with our next element, nitrogen: we might end up making ammonia, NH3(g).

You may have noticed that I removed the “boron-lithium system” from the vessel. The 0.178 moles we created are now stored separately and will not be allowed to react any further. With such little literature about the reactivity of B3Li, it’s impossible to predict what compounds it’ll form later on. B3Li is so rare that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Pressure in the vessel increases to 718 kPa after carbon is added
Pressure in the vessel increases to 718 kPa after carbon is added
mass of sludge in periodic table smoothie after adding carbon.png
Mass of sludge in the vessel changes after adding carbon

Here’s what’s present in the vessel after adding carbon

Substance Moles present after 500 ‘steps’
He(g) 1.00000
Be(s) 0.51435
LiH(s) 0.27670
Li2C2(s) 0.27165
B2H6(g) 0.23300
Be2C(s) 0.17470
H2(g) 0.14267
BeC2(s) 0.13625
CH4(g) 0.00949

We also have 0.178 moles of B3Li stored separately in another vessel.

Next week, we’ll add nitrogen and see what happens.

Let’s add boron powder

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‘Boron’ page from Theodore Gray’s book, The Elements

Boron is a metalloid: an intermediate between the metals and non-metals. It exists in many polymorphs (different crystal lattice structures), some of which exhibit more metallic character than others. Metallic boron is non-toxic, extremely hard and has a very high melting point: only 11 elements have a higher melting point than boron.

British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy described boron thus:

“[Boron is] of the darkest shades of olive. It is opake[sic], very friable, and its powder does not scratch glass. If heated in the atmosphere, it takes fire at a temperature below the boiling point of olive oil, and burns with a red light and with scintillations like charcoal” – Sir Humphrey Davy in 1809

Initial condition

Before we add the 1.00 mol of boron into our reaction vessel, we need to recall what’s already in there from our experiments so far:

  • H2(g): 0.70 mol
  • He(g): 1.00 mol
  • Li(s): 0.40 mol
  • LiH(s): 0.60 mol
  • Be(s): 1.00 mol

The temperature of our vessel is 99 °C and the pressure of the gaseous phase is 525.5 kPa.

Now, let’s add our 1.00 mol of boron powder.

Which reactions take place?

Boron reacts with hydrogen gas to produce a colourless gas called borane, BH3(g), according to the following equation[1]:

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Boron also reacts with lithium in very complex ways. If we heat the vessel up to 350 °C, we’d expect to see the formation of a boron-lithium system with chemical formula B3Li according to this equation[2]:

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Notice that now we’ve heated up our vessel to 350 °C to allow this reaction to happen, the lithium at the bottom of the vessel has melted.

Boron reacts with lithium hydride as well, but only at temperatures around 688 °C. With our vessel’s temperature set at 350 °C, we won’t observe this particular reaction in our experiment.[3]

Some allotropes of boron – in particular, the alpha allotrope that was discovered in 1958 – is capable of reacting with beryllium to form BeB12. Because we’re using beryllium powder, which has semi-random  symmetry, we won’t see any BeB12 forming in our vessel. Alpha-boron only exists at pressures higher than around 3500 kPa. At our moderate pressure of only 525.5 kPa, powdered (semi-random) boron will prevail and no BeB12 will form.[4]

For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the two reactions above take place with equal preference.

Boron powder reacts with hydrogen gas

Let’s do an ice table to find out how much borane we make.

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A quick n/ratio calculation shows us that the hydrogen gas is limiting in this reaction:

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We can expect all of the hydrogen gas to react with the boron powder.

units are mol 2 B 3 H2 2 BH3
I 0.50 0.70 0
C -0.466 -0.70 +0.466
E 0.0333 0 0.466

Borane is very unstable as BH3, and it would probably dimerise into B2H6(g). This is still a gas at 350 °C and is much more stable than BH3. For the rest of this experiment we’ll assume that our 0.466 mol of BH3 has dimerised completely into 0.233 mol of B2H6.

Boron powder reacts with lithium

With the molar ratios present in our vessel, at 350 °C, we’d expect to witness the formation of a boron-lithium system, with chemical formula B3Li.

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A quick n/ratio calculation shows that in this reaction, the boron powder is limiting.

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All of the remaining boron therefore reacts with lithium. To calculate exactly how much B3Li we’ve created, let’s do another ice table:

units are mol 3 B Li B3Li
I 0.533 0.40 0
C -0.533 -0.178 +0.178
E 0 0.222 0.178

What’s in our vessel after adding boron?

We have the following gas mixture in our vessel:

Helium gas, He(g): 1.00 mol

Helium is an inert noble gas that will probably remain in the vessel until the end of the experiment. It’s used in party balloons.

Borane gas, B2H6(g): 0.233 mol

We made this today. Borane is used in the synthesis of organic chemicals via a process called hydroboration. An example of hydroboration is shown below.

250px-hydroboration-oxidation_of_1-methyl-cyclohex-1-ene

At the bottom of the vessel, there’s a sludge, which contains the following liquids and solids:

Molten lithium, Li(l): 0.22 mol

Lithium is used in the production of ceramics, batteries, grease, pharmaceuticals and many other applications. We’ve got 0.22 moles of lithium, which is about 1.5 grams.

Beryllium powder, Be(s): 1.00 mol

Beryllium is used as an alloying agent in producing beryllium copper, which is used in springs, electrical contacts, spot-welding electrodes, and non-sparking tools.

Lithium hydride, LiH(s): 0.60 mol

Lithium hydride is used in shielding nuclear reactors and also has the potential to store hydrogen gas in vehicles. Lithium hydride is highly reactive with water.

Boron-lithium system, B3Li(s): 0.178 mol

We made this today… but what is it? Not much is known about this compound – in fact, it doesn’t even have a name other than “boron-lithium system, B3Li”. It’ll probably decompose eventually in our experiment – maybe when we alter the pressure or temperature of the vessel at some later stage. We’ll need to keep an eye on this one.

The original H2(g) and B(s) have been reacted completely in our experiment.

What’s the pressure in our vessel now?

At the end of our reaction, the temperature of our vessel is still set at 350 °C and the pressure of the gaseous phase inside the vessel can be calculated to be a moderate 638 kPa as follows:

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*It should also be noted that some evidence exists for a reaction between LiH and BH3, forming Li(BH4). The reaction seems to take place stepwise with increasing temperature. A quick read of this paper suggests that in our vessel, which is at 350 °C, any Li(BH4) formed would actually break back down into boron powder and hydrogen gas, which would in turn react with each other and with lithium metal to form BH3 and LiH again. The net result would be a negligible net gain of LiH and a negligible net loss of boron powder. We will continue calculating this Periodic Table Smoothie under the assumption that if any Li(BH4) forms, it breaks down before we add the next element, and the overall effect on our system is negligible.

**Li(BH4) is an interesting compound: it’s been touted as a potential means of storing hydrogen gas in vehicles – it’s safer and releases hydrogen more readily than LiH, which was mentioned above.[5]

Next week, we’ll add element number 6, carbon, and see what happens.

References

  1. “Borane”. Wikipedia. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
  2. Okamoto, H. “The B-Li (Boron-Lithium) System”. Bulletin of Alloy Phase Diagrams 10.3 (1989): 230-232.
  3. Matkovich, V. I. Boron And Refractory Borides. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1977. Print.
  4. Gaulé, G. K. Boron, Volume 2: Preparation, Properties And Applications. New York: Plenum Press, 1965. Print.
  5. Saldan, Ivan. “A Prospect For Libh4 As On-Board Hydrogen Storage”. Open Chemistry 9.5 (2011): n. pag. Web.