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.

Peer Review

The term “Peer Review” is often used in a scientific context. It describes a process whereby a scientific paper is reviewed by other scientists. The process is designed to point out errors, non sequitors and other pitfalls. Scientists and other writers have a perfectly human weakness (and perhaps defensivness) toward criticism, even so-called “constructive” criticism. It is always good to have a second pair of eyes, so to speak (I am reminded of the aphorism that God gave us two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth. You usually learn considerably more from listening than talking).

Way, way back in the day, I was enrolled in 90-day wonder school, aka Naval Officer Candidate School. There, we were to learn seamanship, navigation, engineering and gunnery (and be ready to lead men in these pursuits aboard ship – you gotta be kidding…). Even more important was to master people (leadership) skills. One of the tools for this occurred near the end of the course – an exercise in “peer review”. As I recall, we were instructed to rate the five best, and five worst, officer candidates in our 40-man company.

I was rated the worst of the worst. I well remember several of my classmates telling me I wasn’t all that bad, but somebody had to be worst. The company was comprised of a typical cross section of college educated young men from all parts of the USA. I was counseled by the company officer, a regular Navy lieutenant, who pretty much told me that being from New York City, I “came on too strong”, probably because I had the New York trait of talking too loudly and interrupting people. One of his more helpful suggestions: “back off”.

I don’t know if this is still part of the OCS course, but in retrospect, it was an epiphany. A very useful lesson in management, among the many things I learned during my Naval service. I served my country, but got much more back on a personal level.

At the end, I was comissioned Ensign, USNR. I’ll always remember the Chief Petty Officer assigned as Assistant Company Officer telling me that I had been assigned as a Deck Division Officer to the USS Aeolus, hull number ARC-3. After a pause, he looked at me and said. “What the hell is an ARC”? Turned out this was a cable layer, one of only four in the entire fleet.

I reported for duty in March 1963, while the ship was undergoing a “yard overhaul” at the Boston Navy Yard. The ship’s mission was to lay acoustic cable on the ocean floor, to track movements of Soviet submarines. Part of the function was carried out by civilian engineers of Western Electric, who had developed the technology. Ship’s company’s part was a highly intricate laying of the cable, itself. As the deck division officer, I “supervised” the process.

So, here I was, a wet-behind-the ears ensign, telling a group of talented, senior enlisted men how to do their jobs! As it happened, the guy I had replaced coped with this by pulling an all-nighter and studying the process, When his shift started, he proceeded to issue direct orders to the sailors. The chief and first class boatswain mates simply gave the man enough rope to hang himself (Aye, Aye Sir), and he had to be relieved to straighten out the ensuing confusion. The captain contacted the Bureau of Personnel and told them to make him go away (don’t go away mad, just go away…..).

Knowing this at the time, I pretty much told my two senior underlings, in effect, you take care of me, I’ll take care of you (in the current idiom, I’ll have your backs). Worked like a charm. Much of my focus as division officer was to do what I could to make sure they got whatever they could out of Uncle Sam. Important: Develop your people, clear as many obstacles as you can as they do their thing, the rest will take care of itself.

Perhaps my peers were right. I never considered myself as admiral material. I would not have been in the Navy at all if there had been no draft. Looking back, I would have missed out on a priceless learning experience, and so much more. In many ways, it’s a shame we don’t provide this opportunity to our youth the way we used to.


I am not a lawyer. My career as a forensic chemist, however, placed me within the environment of the criminal justice system. For most of that stretch, I had the title of forensic chemist. The job involved identification of controlled substances (illegal drugs). Drug law enforcement is classified as a “victimless crime”, which is to say that, rarely if ever does a subject complain to law enforcement, “arrest that person! He sold me heroin!”. To prove that a crime took place, one needs testimony that the substance changing hands is, in fact, what is alleged. (Often, the buyer hasn’t a clue as to what was actually sold – Caveat Emptor).

An “expert witness” is someone who posesses knowledge or experience relevant to the matter at hand which is not likely to be posessed by the triers of fact (jurors or judges). Experts do not need advanced degrees or, for that matter, degrees at all, just knowledge of some matter under litigation. The judge qualifies the expert in each case. A good expert can teach and reach ordinary folks without boring them to death, or, worse, talking down to them. One of the most entertaining examples I have ever seen was the part in the movie “My Cousin Vinny”, in which the character played by Marisa Tomei rebutted testimony of an FBI expert. She was a mechanic who worked in a garage. Probably no education beyond high school. The “feeb” tossed around jargon and totally failed to connect with jurors.

For several years, I taught rookie chemists from state and local labs who attended a weeklong seminar in DEA’s Special Testing and Research Laboratory. One of the major issues these people confronted was fear of the courtroom. My message to them was that they held an advantage in knowing chemistry far better than the lawyers. Unlike “fact” witnesses, experts are allowed to explain findings well beyond yes or no.

In my own experiences, I discovered some anomalies. Although evidence of the identity of a substance had to be introduced, many experienced defense attorneys did not want expert testimony; they would ”stipulate” (admit to) lab findings. Much of trial proceedings involve drawn out, tedious, sleep inducing arguments over arcane issues. If an expert is introduced, a lot of stuff is clarified. Jurors are graphically reminded that we are dealing with a bad guy, a distributor of (say) heroin. In one of my first cases, I was cross examined at great length by an attorney who, it turned out, was court appointed. He was trying to assess the new kid on the block! I’m not sure he would have done this for a paying customer. (The judge asked me whether I was able to tell heroin apart from every substance in the world? Witness :Yes,your honor. Judge: He’s qualified). Another tactic, particularly if interstate travel was involved, was to require you to show up to testify, and stipulate, once you show up. Who knows, one might get lucky, the plane crashes….

One of my favorite trap questions involves whether a book, scientific paper, etc., is authoritative. If you answer “yes” (even if it’s one you wrote), you own every word, sentence, paragraph, typo, etc etc, in the entire tome. The only correct answer: Just.Say.No. A lot of stuff can readily be taken way out of context.

Obviously, there’s a great deal more involved (probably entire courses in law school) but it would be wise for would-be experts to remember:

It’s a game

It’s the world of illusion

I care. But Not. Too. Much.

Demography is Destiny

This nation was founded on the novel notion that people should select the ones who govern us, rather than kings, queens or emporers, whose sole qualification was birth in the right family. The ability to vote was originally limited to white male property owners. It took over a century for women to be granted suffrage, and almost as long for people of color. The chief executive (president) was not to be elected directly by the people, but by a group of “electors” termed the Electoral College, chosen, indirectly, by the people. Can’t trust ordinary folks to do this. Unfortunately, we are still stuck with this system.

The situation is further complicated by other, more subtle, rules to hinder or prevent people from voting. Until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, certain classes of voters had to demonstrate “literacy”, pay exhorbitant poll taxes, etc. In this century, the Supreme Court has basically gutted the Act. Newer, more creative means have been devised in the individual states to limit voting. For the most part, the Republican Party, which controls most state legislatures, is leading the way.

Formed in the 1850’s following the demise of the Whig Party, the Republicans were anti-slavery. In its second election, the Party won the presidency with a little known one term former congressman who became, arguably, the finest president we ever had. The Party dominated presidential politics well into the 20th Century. For the most part, it was heavily favored by corporate Chamber of Commerce types. Its rival, the Democratic Party, tended to favor working class people.

In reaction to the antislavery ethos of the Republicans, Democrats ruled what became known as the “solid south” until, beginning after the Lyndon Johnson administration, the former states of the Confederacy turned Republican. The Grand Old Party remains predominatly white male.

So much for history. The 2020 Census revealed what many of us already knew – the USA is rapidly becoming majority non-white. The GOP needs to reduce the number of people of color voting in elections. Their strategy is simple:

  1. Reduce early voting
  2. Reduce voting hours, and polling stations in minority areas
  3. Insist on tighter regulations for voter ID’s in absentee voting

Also, following the decennial census, adjust boundaries in congressional districts to reduce representation in Congress, a process known as “gerrymandering”. Although a majority of voters in congressional elections vote Democratic, by several percentage points, both parties are virtually equally represented in both Senate and House. (The U.S. Senate is permanently gerrymanded – California is equally represented with Wyoming, although its population is about fifty times greater).

The situation for the GOP borders on the desperate. Unless they can limit voting by poorer, browner, working class folks, they are destined to lose elections. Already, in this century, Democrats have won the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections. An alternative would be to enhance popularity among these voters, similar to what was done following the debacle in 1964. Way too much trouble. This explains much of the intense manuvering currently underway in numerous state capitols. A major failing of the Democrats in the Obama years was a neglect of state level races.

One of the most egregious legislation being proposed (or passed) in states such as Texas, Georgia and Florida, among others, would permit the legislature to overturn elections on the mere assertion that “fraud” was involved. Power to the People??

We do badly need perspective. We are still the hope of the world. Despite our numerous problems, many of them existential in nature, relatively few want to leave us to live eleswhere. We can justifiably credit We the People for creating this.

The masses of voters are not asses, as our Founders seemed to believe, but rather apathetic. We have other stuff to worry about, but if they further erode majority rule (such as it is), our experiment in self rule is over. Our potential salvation, if we can take advantage of it: demography is destiny.