It’s Even Worse Than We Thought

Several months ago, I postulated on history’s ranking of POTUS 45. I ranked him as, unequivocably, The Worst Ever. Little did I know how bad he really was. Like it or not, we need an update.

Presidential historians used to rank the several weak sisters surrounding Abraham Lincoln (Buchanan, Fillmore, Pierce and Andrew Johnson), along with 20th century figures such as Richard Nixon and Warren Harding as the worst. None of these even begin to approach, in mendacity and sheer incompetence, #45.

No, I’m not a political scientist. I did spend a few decades as a federal worker and manager, including a tour as a naval officer (I couldn’t find a doctor to sign off on a 4-F draft status because of flat feet). In that capacity, I served as a Custodian of Registered Publications. I was responsible for maintenance, inventory and general safeguarding of classified stuff. Woe betide me if I lost, misplaced or shared any page, paragraph or sentence. The penalty was a courts -martial. I can only imagine the outrage felt by many Custodians when stories appeared in the media about how POTUS 45 had taken a bunch of these to his retirement home, and, to put it delicately, flushed some of them down the toilet! Why is he still walking around a free man?

Then, there are the events of January 6, 2021. With apologies to the Eagles, do I believe my lyin’ eyes? Here is the Chief Executive on video exhorting followers to proceed to the Capitol for a, er, peaceful demonstration. Cost the lives of several policemen, for what that’s worth. What is the commonly accepted term for these events? I thank it’s an insurrection. To the extent I can trust my lyin’ eyes, sure looks like the man committed treason. Why is he still walking around free??

As I write this, it is near the end of income tax season. I think, at long last,the man has been forced to make public some of his tax returns. What we seem to know, for certain, is that he valued some of his numerous properties low to evade taxes, and high to obtain loans. I think the term of art is income tax evasion. Didn’t they get Al Capone for that? Why not The Donald?

At the moment, we are shipping billions of dollars worth of military hardware to Ukraine, a victim of the “brilliant” (if demented) dictator of Russia. POTUS #45 is an unabashed admirer of Vlad the Terrible. He has expressed, in the earliest days of the “special military exercise” his admiration of how “brilliant” it is.

We often speak in parables about how “nobody is above the law”. How about “equal justice under the law”. Somewhere in Texas lives an ordinary person who wasn’t aware that her legal status prohibited her from casting a ballot in the 2016 presidential election (bet she didn’t vote for the Republican cabdidate). Fortunately, the election police voided the ballot, but she was sentenced to five years in the slam for this heinous crime. Meanwhile, POTUS 45’s Chief of Staff voted twice, once of which was in North Carolina, where he had bought a trailer, but never spent a single night in it. Is he doing time for this? I doubt it.

One of his sorriest legacies is one we will be dealing with for decades – best expressed by the term “hollow government”. Besides placing numerous totally unqualified individuals into key cabinet and sub-cabinet positions, for the most part these were put in as “acting”, thereby avoiding any pesky advise-and- consent by Congress. These could be fired more readily (sound like a TV show the man starred in, by chance?). His son-in law had a bulging portfolio of serious problems he had no clue how to handle.

As a populace, we Americans tend to be contemptious of government. This is one reason why the party which wins the presidency tends to do poorly in the off-year elections. Another effect of this ingrained attitude is the en masse resignation of just about all appointed officials, even if the party/president is reelected. The result is a lag in filling major appointments in most agencies for at least a yesr. Why hasn’t the Attorney General prosecuted any of the higher-ups (maybe including #45)? Probably because more help is needed. Much more. Prosecuting rich, well connected.folks is, to say the least, extremely labor intensive.

Don’t believe your lyin’ eyes………….

The Making of a Chemist

Chemists are made, not (save a very few) born. I started about age 10, when I acquired a chemistry set. In those days, the set of choice was an A.C. Gilbert (still very much around; check out the Amazon official site). I haven’t seen a set since the mid Fifties, but I’m sure they’ve been sanitized to the point of boredom.

Back in the day, a Gilbert set could be used, for example, to produce a gas with a “diabolical odor” like rotten eggs. Naturally, I had to try it out in my unventilated lab in the basement. The procedure called for heating sulfur and paraffin in a test tube (I have never heard of this method,to this day),but it sure worked! Unfortunately, I developed a world class headache and nausea. Years later, I found out that hydrogen sulfide was as toxic as hydrogen cyanide, the active ingredient in gas chambers. I’m sure the lawyers have gotten involved and spoiled a lot of fun (and probably saved some lives).

The rather small amount of chemicals in the set needed replenishment from time to time. You could buy stuff from Gilbert, but you’d pay the price. Fortunately, a friend recommended John H.Wynn, who sold chemicals to chemistry majors. To get to Wynn’s shop on West 23rd Street involved a subway ride (with one transfer from GG local train to the F express) from our home in Queens. I was 11 at the time, and my brother Alfred was 7. I needed to take him along (there’s strength in numbers, after all). My parents’ sole concern was that we had to dress suitably in case we met someone we knew (after all, NYC’s population was 7 million at the time), since we were going to the City. Imagine trusting kids to do this, in this day and time…….

We made the trek several times over a few years, to the point where Mr. Wynn trusted us to buy concentrated sulfuric and nitric acids (but not glycerin, which would have enabled us to make nitroglycerin, which is truly bad stuff).

We also dabbled in gunpowder and pipe bombs for the Fourth of July,and tried out small scale making of moonshine. I won’t bore you with the “how” of these pursuits. There are plenty of them on the Internet).

The advancement of technology has changed the learning experience of chemistry. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that we have emphasized the solving of problems at the expense of what used to be called “descriptive chemistry”, where we looked at chemicals in terms of what they looked like, smelled like, their physical state and other aspects. For example, yeah, hydrogen sulfide smelled like rotten eggs, hydrogen cyanide smelled like burnt almonds, mercury is a liquid, chlorine smells like a swimming pool, fun stuff like that. In many ways, we’ve taken the joy out of studying it. We’ve made it the “toughest course in high school”. To what end?

I have also learned that little or nothing which I learned over the years was a waste of time. During my years of teaching high school, on one occasion, a “stink bomb” was released into the hall. My well trained nose instantly identified it as hydrogen sulfide. The factoid I mentioned earlier as to its toxicity vis a vis hydrogen cyanide which I discovered at the time was of great interest to Al Burch, the principal . This was during the innocent era prior to school shootings (although a year or two later, the first of them took place at Columbine High School). As the saying goes, “what goes around, comes around”.

The risk averse nature of our society has resulted in the de-emphasis of laboratory hands on experience. Too risky and expensive. Can’t we simulate this with computers? No, we can’t! In my later years, I taught a community college course, “Chemistry for Nurses”, the only chemistry course required – and it didn’t even include a lab! I had to sort of sneak exercises in taking some measurements for these kids. A neice of ours earned a nursing degree from Villanova in the 70’s, and took almost as much chemistry as I did. Maybe RN’s don’t need as much chemistry nowadays.


During a recent medical appointment, along with the usual chit-chat, the Physicians Assistant mentioned how she had had trouble with “O Chem” as an undergraduate. Turns out she meant Organic Chemistry. The word “organic” has, in modern times, acquired several meanings it didn’t have, back in the day. We speak of a subclass of food as a prominent example meaning, supposedly, that it was grown or processed without use of pesticides.

Organic Chemistry is a part of the science which deals with compounds containing one element, carbon, as an essential part. As I have mentioned in other posts, carbon-containing compounds far outnumber compounds consisting of the other 117 or so elements. Naming these presents another challenge to us consisting of yet another foreign language. Compounds of carbon are tied together, as it were, by covalent bonds, meaning that electrons are shared, rather than given/taken as is the case with ionic bonds.

To name this universe of stuff, we need some rules. Officially, the formal system is called the IUPAC. (It must be complicated because the acronym is 5 letters long!) Stands for International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, a mouthful in itself. I won’t induce any more sleep by trying to explain it further, but to point out that there are a mess of so called “trivial”names for them, used by practitioners.

Many of the chemicals we ingest are organic. The vast majority of pharmaceuticals are organic compounds. Illicit drugs are. Fossil fuels are . Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are. Sounds like Cole Porter lyrics? You get my drift….

Organic compounds can be formed by long “chains” of carbon atoms, 30, 40,50 or more, while inorganic compounds are considerably shorter. Since the carbon atom has 4 valence electrons, it can form bonds with four other elements (including even another carbon atom). Atoms (or groups of atoms) bonded to carbons are known as “functional groups”, since they can react chemically to form other compounds. This gives rise

to the extremely large number of organic chemicals.

The simplest (and, might I add, boring) organic compounds are the hydrocarbons. They burn, forming water, carbon dioxide (and, under the wrong conditions, carbon monoxide), and heat- and that’s about it. They keep us warm at a price – greenhouse gases. Halogens (Cl, F, Br, I) bond with carbon, as well as -OH (alcohols), -COOH (acids). These elements undergo numerous reactions to form other compounds.

As a practical matter, organic chemists specialize in certain groups of compounds. The chemicals I tended to work with included pharmaceuticals and such bad boys as cocaine, heroin and LSD, to mention a few of the home remedies out there. Although my work tended toward analytical chemistry (what is it, and how much is present) I did some work on synthesis (how do you make stuff). One of my earliest gigs, as a DEA program manager, was to “reverse engineer” procedures believed to be followed by “chemists” working in the south of France (making the purest heroin out there). I took advantage of my Franco-American heritage to translate recipes from French to English. We had lofty ambitions to develop remote sensing technologies which, unfortunately were not sufficiently mature to take on the road, so to speak. (as it happened, we were able to detect wineries and dry cleaning establishments, but, alas, no heroin refineries).

Not for lack of trying.

Fun with Chemistry – Blowing Stuff Up

Profound question from my high school classes: “Mr. Canaff, are we going to blow stuff up?

Blowing stuff up involves chemical reactions. For the most part, these reactions need to be rapid, exothermic and have one or more products which are gaseous. What do all these terms and conditions mean?

Chemical reactions are not always rapid, to say the least. There is a subset, so to speak, of extremely rapid ones. All chemical reactions involve a gain or loss of energy. Reactions which release heat to the surroundings are exothermic, while those which do not are endothermic.

What’s with gaseous products? It involves the taking up of space, what physical scientists define as “volume”. Basically, all matter exists in one of three phases: solid. liquid and gas. Solids and liquids are often called “condensed states”, in that the atoms/molecules are touching each other. With gases, on the other hand, the atoms/molecules are not in contact. Let’s look at a familiar substance – water. The molecular weight of water is about 18 grams. In the logical setup of the Metric System. one gram of liquid takes up 1 milliliter of room, so to speak, so that 18 g of water would take up 18 ml. Barely a half a shot glass. At the boiling point, the gaseous mole of water would take in excess of 30 liters, about 17,000 times!

Of course, water doesn’t burn, Heating it to the boiling point represents a phase change from liquid to gas (steam). Let’s check out something which does burn: propane, C3H8. The balanced equation: C3H8(l) + 5 O2(g) —–> 3 CO2(g) + 4 H2O(g) (s,l and g are phases).

Both products are gaseous. For each mole of propane, 7 moles of gas are formed. The volume change is, to say the least, considerable. Gas volumes also increase with temperature. The reaction is strongly exothermic. You need to cook those hamburgers! If the reaction is carried out in the open (gas grill) where the volume change is dissipated, no problem. If, however, the reaction takes place in a closed environment, (you forget to leave the cover open) watch out!!

Then there is the “classic” gunpowder recipe:

4KClO3(s) + 3S(s) + 3C(s) —-> 3SO2(g) + 3CO2(g) + 4KCl(s)

Here again, we start with three solids and end up with six moles of gas. The huge volume of gas formed, having no place else to go, is funneled along a gun barrel and pushes bullets along. Some of the energy released causes the action/reaction bump along the shooter’s hand or shoulder. (Full disclosure: I HATE guns!).

In addition to the noise, one often feels a “shock wave”. This is caused by the sudden compression of the atmosphere in the vicinity of the explosion.

So,there you have it, boys and girls. Chemistry can be fun!!

Stoichiometry (What you really hated about CHEM 101)

It ain’t that bad. Just the darn numbers. If you read the last part of my previous post:

1 mole = 6.022 exp 23 = X grams

What is a mole, anyhow? No, it’s not a burrowing furry animal, the bane of gardeners. It is a count of 6.022 exp 23 of……whatever. The number is named for Amedeo Avogadro, a 19 century Italian chemist. That number, being that HUUUGE, must count something very small. What could be smaller than atoms or molecules? (Well, a lot of things, actually – how about a mole of virus, or is it virae????).

So, if we could, given an imaginery set of molecular tweezers and a near infinite amount of time, count that number of, let’s say, carbon atoms, we would accumulate a mole of carbon atoms. Since this is, to say the least, impractical, we need a better way. Turns out that a mole of carbon can be easily weighed out – 12.011 grams is the weight of a mole, 6.022 exp 23 carbon atoms. All you need is a Periodic Table and a balance (scale)! As a practical matter, you don’t even need to bother with Avogadro’s Constant to solve the vast majority of problems in stoichimetry (there’s that word again…).

I am old enough to remember the days before calculators were invented. We used slide rules and logarithms (remember those)? It wasn’t until I got my first professional job as an analytical chemist with FDA in 1960 that I got to use a rudimentary calculator. Many of the stoichiometry problems we worked on in chemistry courses involved setting up the equations, but not solving them.

Back to the present. Grams to moles calculations are necessary because (along with molecular tweezers) there is no such thing as a mole weighing device (balance). Since 12.011 grams (say) of carbon equals one mole, we need to be able to convert from one to the other. (Incidentally, one mole of sulfur weighs 32.06 grams; one mole of uranium weighs 238.03 grams). How much does 0.45 moles of sulfur weigh? You guessed it! 14.43 grams! So, if you want to know how much does 3.45 moles of sulfur weighs, simply multiply 3.45 moles x 32.06 grams per mole = 110.61 grams. Ain’t calculators grand!

We suffered through balancing equations last post. The coefficients for each chemical in a balanced equation represent the moles. We convert to grams by multiplying moles by molecular weight (the sum of weights from the Periodic Table for each of the compounds). What could be simpler? In a similar fashion, we can convert grams to moles by dividing by molecular weight.

OK, consider a reaction often used to produce oxygen (that is, molecular oxygen, O2). Potassium chlorate is heated to produce potassium chloride and oxygen:

KClO3 —–> KCl + O2

Balancing is simple: 2KClO3 ——> 2KCl + 3O2

Supposing I need to produce 2,000 grams of oxygen. How much KClO3 do I need? From the balanced equation, for every 3 moles of oxygen I need to react 2 moles of KClO3. How many moles are there in 2,000 grams of oxygen? If we set up an expression (whatever that means) such that 2.000 grams x 32.0g/mole = 62.5 moles O2. Since 3 moles of O2 are produced from 2 moles of KClO3, we need 41.7 moles of KClO3. Since the molecular weight of KClO3 is 122.6 (39.1+35.5+48.0), the answer is………………………5,112 grams.

Parting thoughts:

A necessary skill one needs to master is the art of recognition of a correct answer to a problem. When I was teaching, I had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to teach students how to use their calculator. Many of the problems involved the numerous operating systems in use at that time. I doubt that that has much improved today. For example, say the correct answer was 2.84 exp -3. It is conceivable that another student might get 0.00284. What is the right answer??

A colleague of mine at O’Connell H.S. coined a phrase, which should be a mantra of sorts, Chem is Try. It’s not rocket science, in the current idiom. Just need to work at it.

Many of you might ask, as my high school kids used to, “Mr Canaff, when do we blow stuff up?” I’ll deal with that in a future post.

Bean Counting 101 (Balancing Chemical Equations)

No, this is not an accounting paper. I can’t even balance my check book.

The fundamental principle in chemistry is the Law of Conservation of Matter. Simply stated, stuff in an ordinary chemical reaction is neither created nor destroyed. (I can’t account for physicists who monkey around with matter and energy…….).

Matter, of course, can change in all sorts of ways; isn’t that why we do chemical reactions? No matter what happens, however, the same atoms present at the start will be there after the (dust clears?) reaction ends.

Some jargon: chemicals present at the start of the reaction are termed reactants, those formed as a result are termed products.

Here is a simple one: C + H2 —–> CH4 On the reactant (left) side of the reaction, we count one C and 2H’s. On the right, one C and 4H’s. If I double the H2‘s on the reactant side the thing balances: C + 2H2 —–> CH4 Seems simple enough. A ground rule: You may change coefficients (the big #’s) but never the subscripts.

Let’s try another one: C2H6 +O2—–> CO2 + H2O. This is a good way to keep warm. We burn (combine with oxygen) a hydrocarbon (C2H6). The products are carbon dioxide, water and heat (which is the only product we care about). OK, we start with:




and end up with:




We can double the CO2, giving us balanced carbons. If we put a 3 ahead of H2O, this balances hydrogen. At this point, we end with 7 O’s on the product side. What’s on the reactant side? Oxygen, in the form of O2. What’s this? Reality! There are several atoms which go through life as “diatomic atoms”. This is to pair up valence electrons (unpaired electrons are called “free radicals” a chemical no no. But I digress….). In any case, one is tempted to break up the diatom and balance by putting 7O’s there. DON’T DO IT!! Instead, multiply all the compounds by 2, and end up with:

2C2H6 +7O2 —–> 4CO2 + 6H2O

Incidentally, the second equation represents a class of compounds referred to as “hydrocarbons”. Their general equation is CN H2N+2 . They all combine with oxygen producing carbon dioxide and water (and heat). Since digestable food consists mostly of carbon, our bodies manufacture carbon dioxide and water as waste products. Biologists call this “metabolism”. As Sam Cooke famously observed back in the day. I “don’t know much about biology” (too complicated), but along with the energy food produces we produce water (urine) and CO2 in our exhalation.

Why do we need to balance equations? Because if we want to make new stuff, we need to be able to measure out the equivalent amounts to make a desired amount of product (and I don’t mean heat!). Next, we’ll look at counting atoms and molecules. Keep this in mind: one mole = 6.02 exp 23 atoms or molecules = X number of grams. We’ll check this out next.

Chemical Formulas (Formulae? It’s Geek to Me)

Now that we’ve looked into naming chemicals, we need to look into formulas. There are several types of formula, each providing us with information. At its simplest form (molecular) the formula provides us with the elements comprising the compound and the number of each. Previously we considered two oxides of carbon, one containing equal numbers of carbon and oxygen (CO, carbon monoxide) and (CO2, carbon dioxide). The former depicts a substance containing equal amounts of carbon and oxygen, and the latter where carbon is chemically bonded with 2 atoms of oxygen.

There are several types of chemical formulas. One of the things chemists often need to do is calculate molecular weight. From the simplest formula, we can calculate the sum of the weights of the elements. For instance, consider baking soda, NaHCO3. From the periodic table, we see sodium having an atomic weight of 22.90, hydrogen weighs in at 1.008, and the 3 atoms of oxygen at 47.997, for a total of ……..drum roll:71.905. (There are two numbers for each element: single one without decimals, atomic number, and one with a decimal and several places, atomic weight). Normally, one sums up all the atomic weight numbers, then rounds to one or two decimal places.

This process works OK for simple compounds. As you know, life just ain’t so simple. For example, the sugar glucose has the formula C6H12O6. This tells us how to calculate its molecular weight, but…….this formula is shared by the sugar we call fructose. To distinguish between them, we need to show how the C’s, H’s and O’s are bonded to each other.

What difference does this make? Quite a bit, at times. For instance, the sweetness power (did I coin a phrase here?) is different between them (why else would we care about them, anyhow). Clearly, we need to go greater in depth.

How can we bond a total of 24 atoms to each other ? The C’s are bonded in four directions. Most are bonded to, on one side, an O which in turn is attached to an H. In another direction, the C (usually called the “central atom”) has an H on one side, and O bonded to H on the other. It can be written as -CHOH. Each C is then bonded to the rest of the molecule. Essentially, the difference between glucose and fructose is in what plane the H’s and OH’s are oriented. Told you this isn’t simple. The term of art for two (or more) compounds having the same formula (collection of atoms) is isomer. Fructose and glucose are isomers.

In most general chemistry courses, the topics taught stress inorganic chemicals; the reality is that the overwhelming majority of chemicals are organic. Glucose and fructose are organic chemicals. As I mentioned previously, if the compound contains carbon, it’s probably organic. But not always.

There are several ways to depict formulae on paper. Each provides additional pieces of information which might be needed by practioners. The simplest are molecular (just the atoms present, with the numbers of each, Just the facts, ma’am, to coin a (very old) phrase. We can use these to look at balancing equations.

This is where the fun ends (or, maybe, begins).

By the way, glucose and fructose can combine with each other, lose a molecule of dihydrogen oxide (do I mean water??) and form sucrose. How ’bout that!

Name That Chemical!

Betcha you didn’t know you had signed up for a foreign language. We need to (at least) look at classifying and naming this humongous mess of stuff we call matter. Again, we’re looking at an almost infinite number of items.

To begin with, chemicals are either organic or inorganic. Generally, chemical compounds containing carbon are organic, all others are classified as inorganic. Unfortunately, this is not universal (Sounds like French? Told you this is not easy!). Let’s start with simple stuff: Binary (just two elements): Something like, oh, table salt. Sodium and chlorine. The first listed, the so-called metal, (sodium) is listed first, as is. The second (nonmetal), chlorine, has its second syllable changed to -ide. Chloride. Thus: Sodium chloride. Formula: NaCl. Thought sodium began with “S”? Well, the element symbol is derived from the latin name Natrium. So are a lot of the others (told you this wasn’t easy…………..).

To look at another common binary compound, how about one consisting of hydrogen and oxygen, Hydrogen is to the left of oxygen on the Table, so it’s listed first. Oxygen undergoes a name change to oxide. Hydrogen oxide. Since these two can form more than one compound, this needs to be addressed. H2O is thus dihydrogen oxide. NOBODY calls it that! We know it as Water. Hydrogen and oxygen can form another compound where 2 atoms of hydrogen combine with 2 atoms of oxygen. This is called hydrogen peroxide.

Back in high school, or freshman chemistry, you probably were told that this illustrated the Law of Multiple Proportions. Then again, they shot another principle at you called the Law of Definite Proportions. Seem like an oxymoron? Simply, whole atoms form compounds with different numbers of whole atoms, depending on conditions.

The subject of nomenclature is further complicated by a large variety of common chemicals called by “trivial” names. Like water, you have a scientific, systematic name that nobody uses. A compound containing an atom of nitrogen bonded with 3 atoms of hydrogen would be nitrogen trihydride. The rest of civilization calls it ammonia. Just like a language!

Names follow from formulas, so we need to look at this. In its simplest form, a formula tells which atoms are present, and in what ratios. For instance, CO2 is a compound containing an atom of carbon bonded to two oxygens. CO, carbon monoxide.

is one containing equal numbers of carbon and oxygen. Note the prefixes of oxygen: mono (1) and di (2). Tri means 3; tetra 4, penta 5, hexa 6, ad nauseum.

Consider the compound with the formula KNO3. K is the symbol for potassium (Latin name, Kalium). As you can see, the stuff also contains nitrogen and oxygen. “NO3” Turns out this is part of a group of compounds known as “acids”, in this case, nitric acid, formula HNO3. Acids dissolve in water to produce hydrogen ion and the rest of the molecule, an anion, with the name “nitrate”. KNO3 is thus dubbed potassium nitrate. Sorry you asked yet?

I could go on, but as you can see, eyes tend to glaze over. When I was an undergraduate at CCNY, I took elementary physics with an old frenchman who taught with a French accent in a whispered monotone. If you asked too many questions, you were invited to “drop de course”. After a few weeks, I took him up on the offer.

Electrons. Chemistry Where It’s At

In a previous post, we took a peek at the structure of the atom. We looked at how atoms (elements) build up in weight, most of which consists of positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons, roughly equal in mass to each other. The atomic number of each element is equal to its number of protons. In each of them are a number of electrons equal to protons; since you don’t get a shock when you, say, handle aluminum foil, the charges (plus and minus) obviously must be equal.

Electrons lie in regions of (probablistic) space outside of the core (nucleus) of atoms. These are known as orbitals (suggesting the model of the solar system I told you not to take too seriously). Just a reminder -these are tiny, really really tiny. When confronted with stuff or entities too small to visualize, scientists sort of construct models. Models are very useful, if you don’t take them literally. Often, as new information is discovered, models are modified, or discarded outright. Chemists pigeonhole electrons into orbitals designated “s”, “p”, “d” and “f”. I won’t bore you with what these things look like (remember, these are just models); suffice to say electrons are found in them.

Why don’t we look at Public Enemy #1, aka methane. The chemical formula for this bad boy greenhouse gas is CH4 , meaning that the moleculeconsists of a carbon atom chemically bonded to four hydrogen atoms. What happens is that carbon, with 4 valence electrons shares four electrons with hydrogen. Not an outright donation, as I described in my previous post, but a sharing. Relatively simple compounds often follow something called the Octet Rule – whereby they enter arrangements which provide 8 electrons, like the fat-dumb-and-happy “noble gases”.

The two basic types of chemical bond are ionic (where electrons are given/taken outright) and covalent, where they are shared. Ionic compounds, such as sodium chloride, aka table salt, when dissolved in water conduct electricity. This results from the water molecule being capable of separating electric charges (also known as ions). In the case of salt, the negative chloride ion (chlorine containing an extra valence electron) exists along with sodium ion (short a valence electron, charged positive) results in a solution which conducts electricity.

Most ionic bonding occurs with elements in Columns 1 and 2 forming compounds with those in Columns 16 and 17. More typically, we can look at a (seemingly) well understood compound, H2O. The formula tells us that each of two hydrogen atoms is bonded chemically with a single oxygen. Water doesn’t conduct electricity, in its pure form. No ions are present to do this. The bonding between the oxygen and hydrogens is covalent in nature.

The vast majority of chemical compounds exhibit covalent bonding. Even in large, complex molecules, the driving force forming compounds is to provide a pseudo noble gas configuration for each element. Exception is hydrogen, where a helium configuration (2 electrons) does the trick.

Carbon is found in the vast majority of compounds. It is part of just about every drug we take, along with most stuff we burn (combine with oxygen) to produce electricity or just stay warm. Unfortunately, most of the byproducts of burning are sent into the atmosphere. Many of them are greenhouse gases.

Next time, we’ll take a plunge into naming some of these chemicals (the stuff you probably hated in college or high school). We’ll try to make it stress-free (after all, no grades or any other such nonsense…..)

Ain’t Science Wonderful

One of the singular accomplishments in science was the assembling of chemical elements into what is known today as the Periodical Table. This was done before computers and many of the other measurement devices we take for granted nowadays. Dmitri Mendeleev, a 19th century Russian professor of chemistry, did much of the heavy lifting toward the placement of the known elements, 63 at that time. Currently, the Table lists 118.

Chemistry, the branch of science concerned with the stuff comprising the universe (matter) classifies it in two groups: elements and compounds. Elements (atoms) are the basic building blocks of matter, so to speak. Compounds are chemically bonded combinations of two or more elements. Whereas elements number in the low hundreds, there are nearly an infinite number of compounds. Examples: Dihydrogen monoxide (the familiar H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), sodium chloride (NaCl), chlorine (Cl2), sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), etc, etc.

Elements, themselves, are comprised of three “subatomic” particles: protons, electrons and neutrons (full disclosure: there are numerous other particles out there, but for simplicity, we’ll just consider these three). Protons and neutrons are the “load bearing” particles, each having about 1,800 times the mass (weight) of electrons. Protons also carry an electric charge of +1, while electrons (despite their light weight) carry a single negative charge. Plus is attracted to minus, while like charges repel. Sort of like a magnet. Elements and compounds are neutral, overall, so the number of protons and electrons must be equal to each other. Neutrons have no charge.

By the mid 19th century, chemists were able to weigh elements. Mendeleev ranked them in order of weight, starting with hydrogen. He found that the elements, if placed in order, had similar chemical behaviors in repeating columns of eight. For example, lithium (#3) seemed to behave chemically in the same manner as sodium (#11). Both elements reacted with water almost violently. By contrast, helium (#2), and neon (#10) seemed totally unreactive. Fluorine (#9) and chlorine (#17) were nearly identical. A serious break in the pattern occurred with argon, the 18th , an unreactive gas like helium and neon, and potassium, the nineteenth, which behaved like lithium and sodium. The other load bearing particle, the neutron, had not been identified at the time Mendeleev first assembled the table. Turns out that argon has a greater number of neutrons than potassium, making it heavier. The two elements switched places in Mendeleev’s scheme.

Mendeleev’s work illustrates what is often referred to as the scientific method. One does something like assembling known elements working with what is known at the time. As new info becomes available, one modifies the “hypothesis”, or working model, to explain anomalies, or draw more accurate conclusions. A similar process is at work in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Atoms are extremely small.. They take up only a tiny amount of space (room).

Protons and neutrons are concentrated, cheek-to-jowl within the center of the atom, aka the nucleus. Electrons are found in regions surrounding the nucleus (think of planets orbiting the sun, but don’t take this too seriously). The electron regions, so to speak, comprise the vast majority of the space the atoms occupy. If one pictures all those positive charges jammed into the tiny space (nucleus), how the hades does the thing not fly apart? ( remember, like charges repel each other). Might the electrically neutral neutrons sort of keep the pieces together? (This is why we need physicists…..)

Meanwhile, electrons form the chemical “bonds” to make compounds, But only the outermost electrons. We call them “valence” electrons. Consider the 11 electrons in the sodium atom, Only one of these is a valence electron, and capable of entering into a chemical bond. On the other hand, chlorine has 17 electrons, 7 of which are valence. Turns out that if sodium donates an electron to chlorine, a compound called sodium chloride is formed. Voila! Table salt! Moreover, the resultant chlorine now has 18 electrons, same as (chemically inactive) argon. If sodium loses an electron, its structure sort of becomes neon, also a fat-dumb-and-happy camper.

Where am I going with this? Science is the thought process humans have used since the beginning of time to figure out the world around us. The reality is that “truth” is dynamic and constantly changing, as we learn new stuff. This goes far toward understanding why the covid pandemic nature and facts seem to change constantly. As new stuff is learned, the “plan” needs to be changed. A popular musical a few decades back featured a song called “Stop the world, I want to get off”. A lot of us, I’m sure, feel this way at times.

We’ll talk more soon. We need to consider chemical bonding, where it’s really at.