May 19, 2014
Hack Your Chemical Life
If, like me, you are a chemistry dunce or a science flunk, you don’t walk around all day seeing atoms, molecules, chemical reactions and all that stuff in everything around you. But it’s there; going on without you and affecting your life in every way – from what you eat to what you see, feel, touch, smell, and hear. Now help is at hand to explain how chemistry works in daily life. The ACS – the American Chemical Society – has begun a series of video releases that get to the bottom of our chemical world. These short films, the “Chemistry Life Hacks”, are full of goodies and, without being too technical, bring chemistry alive in a fun and practical way. They are available on YouTube right now.
So if you want to know how salt can stop your coffee tasting bitter, how to ripen your green bananas, learn about “hygroscopic cookies,” or how to use the industrial rust-remover phosphoric acid found in your cola to clean your skillet, Volume 1 is for you.
Volume 2 will explain how the stink gets in your rotten eggs, how amino acid sulfoxides can make you cry, how nitrocellulose can help you thread a needle, and the chemistry behind keeping your greens green when you cook them.
I wish I had a film of my fondest (perhaps my only) memory of school chemistry class. The humorless teacher in his stained brown coat was cutting up a piece of phosphorus for an experiment. To stop it bursting into flames, he was trying to do this holding the phosphorus under water in a big glass bowl with a pair of tongs. Tongs and phosphorus in one hand and knife in the other, he kept losing control as the stick of phosphorus repeatedly slipped around on the glass. In frustration, he pulled the phosphorus out of the water and began to cut it on the bench. In one of those classic “I wish I’d kept my mouth shut” moments, he declared with his usual pomposity, “Only an expert can do this.” He then told us that the phosphorus would be safe for long enough to cut (only by an expert of course), as the water still on it would stop it igniting. I don’t need to tell you what happened next, do I? You can smell the burning lab, can’t you? Yes, not only did the stick catch fire, it stuck to the bench. Mr. Clever Dick Expert then duly panicked and grabbed it with his hand and stuck it back under water. Screaming with pain, with a napalm-like bit of phosphorus burning up the bench, a lab full of smoke, and the phosphorus now stuck to both hands as he tried to remove it, he yelled at us to get out and ring the fire bell. We were all joyfully evacuated to the playing fields for a couple of hours, watching the lights of the fire engines and ambulance through the billowing smoke. As the combustible teacher emerged from the ambulance with more bandages than a B Movie mummy, he got a big cheer from the kids. That was a real chemistry lesson.
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