Chemicals Have Feelings Too!

Written by Alon Eisenstein

Illustrated by Mike Ellis

I am a chemist. My partner is a chemist. Between the two of us there’s incredible chemistry. Seriously. Have you ever wondered whether chemicals have incredible chemistry too? Are they offended by the fact that people use the phrase “we have great chemistry” when they are not thinking about chemicals?

I find that many people dislike chemicals because they think that most are “bad” for all sorts of reasons. I want to show you that chemicals, like people, want to be loved, want to find their “other half”, and want stability and comfort.

Let’s look at some examples of chemicals, and their “chemistry”:

 

CR-Loners

 

The Loner: Some chemicals like to be alone. They don’t play too well with others, stick to themselves, and they’re kinda shy. These are the Nobel Gases: Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon and Radon. These chemicals like to stay as individual atoms, and they do not bond with any other. Do you think they get lonely sometimes, wishing they could bond with another?

 

 

The Radical: Some chemicals are so agitated they’re just waiting for the opportunity to react. Give them the chance and ‘BAM’ they’re breaking things apart, changing the way things were, sometimes for the better and sometimes for worse. Oxygen radicals, like

CR-RadicalsHydroxyl radical and Superoxide, are such. That’s why our body needs anti-oxidants. Antioxidants protect our body from being damaged by the oxygen radicals which react with practically anything that comes their way. Makes you wonder what has made them so angry? But radical behaviour can be put to good use too. Plastics, for which we have many uses, are examples of polymers (from Greek poly – many; meros – part). When a single radical atom or molecule (termed monomer from Greek mono – one; meros- part) binds to another monomer, creating a 2-unit chain radical, binding to another monomer, creating a 3-unit chain radical, binding to another monomer …. you get the idea … creating a really really really long chain which is the polymer. Sometimes anger can be channeled into a beneficial outcome.

 

The Charged Couple: You know the saying “opposites attract”? Many people think this is a good thing. Arguably, there are examples when this is unhealthy. Think about it- how can a highly optimistic person that sees the good in everything remain happy sharing their lives if their partner is very pessimistic and constantly sees the negative side of things? An analogous and simple example of this is table salt. CR-ChargedYes, that’s right. Table salt is chemically called Sodium Chloride, which consists of a positive sodium ion and a negative Chloride ion. They are held together by the attraction of their opposite charges. But guess what, as soon as you put them in the right environment (in this case water) they break apart. Water helps to split these two opposites, and make everything ok. Now each ion is “guarded” by water molecules, forever safe (not really forever, but let’s make it a happy ending).

 

CR-Polar

 

The Polar Couple: Sometimes relationships are not composed of distinct opposites. Sometimes we start on even ground (or so we like to think), but eventually things become unbalanced. They become polar. For example one side may be more aggressive and controlling, while the other side succumbs and may be left with the smaller share. Take Carbon Monoxide for example, where Carbon shares its electrons with Oxygen, and Oxygen shares its electrons with Carbon. However, once the bond is made between them, guess what! Oxygen pulls harder, and makes sure that the electrons are closer to it than they are to Carbon. Not a well balanced relationship. Poor carbon.

 

The Perfect Match: All the examples I’ve discussed so far seem somewhat gloomy: being alone, being radically aggressive, being attracted to your opposite, or being in an unbalanced relationship. However, there are relationships where things are just right, and both partners provide equal amounts of love and effort, and they maintain this. Molecular Hydrogen, molecular Oxygen, molecular Nitrogen, and all molecular halogens (Fluorine, Chlorine, Bromine and Iodine) they all share a perfect harmony. Each partner comes with their electrons, and these are equally shared in the bond. A perfect union.CR-Perfect

 

Now, chemicals and chemical relationships can be a bit more complicated, just like relationships of people can be. They can go three ways, fours ways, five and even six ways. But let’s keep that for another time.

Next time you’re thinking about chemicals, think how they are feeling. Are they lonely? Are they happy? Are they in a stable relationship? Do they need some support from good friends? Or is it best to leave them be? 

Chemicals are like people. And people are like chemicals.

 

 

AlonAbout the Author

Alon Eisenstein can still remember the day he decided to study chemistry, sitting in a small coffee shop, going through the list of study fields. Remembering his deep admiration towards his chemistry teacher, and the joy he had for the subject, left him with an easy decision.  …Read more here

 

Mike EllisAbout the Illustrator

Mike Ellis is a comic book writer/artist, digital media producer and amateur beard-growing aficionado. He began spitefully making comics while attending the University of Toronto after the comics in the school’s newspaper were so bad he shouted, “I could make a better comic!”  … Read more here

2 Comments

  1. Red Cabbage says:

    Interesting way of describing the different types of bonds. I do have to wonder what Neil Bartlett would have to say about some of your choices for ‘loner’ chemicals. I agree that He and Ne should be in there since there are no ‘d’ orbitals close in energy enough to play with, but there are a wide variety of compounds involving the heavier ‘noble’ gases – Ar, Kr, Xe and Rn. XeF2 is now being considered for use in batteries: http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v2/n9/abs/nchem.724.html.

  2. Dear Red Cabbage,

    Thank you for your comment. I find that as a chemist I am ‘cursed’ with examining the worlds through a chemical perspective (such as; oooh, that’s a nice color, I wonder what is the dye molecule which absorbs that spectrum to produce that?), so it was a pretty fun exercise to examine chemicals through a “humane” perspective for a change.

    As for the choice of “loners” I do admit that I stuck to the classic “noble gases don’t react” paradigm. To be fair, I probably should have used a more reserved language, since it is a well known fact (at least to anyone taking first year General Chemistry) that there are noble gases compounds. Phillip Ball wrote a nice piece for New Scientist a little more than a year ago about the accuracy of what he refers to as the “one half-remembered chemical fact that most of us carry from our schooldays”, which is that “noble gases don’t react”.
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328481.700-impossible-chemistry-forcing-noble-gases-to-work.html#.UcEfcJzQ5nY

    From an artistic point of view, since noble gases compounds are so scarce, compared to the number of compounds any other element in the periodic table can produce, I don’t think my generalization was a terrible one, which was made to make the point of characters which like to be left alone and shy away from interactions.

    From a scientific point of view, and from a science public-relations point of view, I would like to corroborate your point and make it perfectly clear to everyone else who is not a chemist, to say – Noble gases hardly react, but some compounds can be synthesis, it just needs a bigger effort than usual.

    Thanks again for reading, and an even bigger thanks for commenting.

    yours

    Alon

    p.s.
    I love eating Red Cabbage salad but playing around with red cabbage extract at different pH is so much more fun, and the kids just go wild…

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