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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Cadmium missiles for Godzilla and other tales from Chemistry (Ajit Weekly News Column: Bookends)

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<br>Yet, what students are taught in the name of chemistry — like many other science subjects — is just to memorise a lot of names of elements and compounds, their properties, vital statistics, and uses, a host of equations of reactions, strange concepts such as the Periodic Table of Elements, abstruse calculations, and a few controlled experiments in labs.

What this goes on to do is to rob chemistry of any interest and its real world aspect and applications — say, to understand why cutting onions makes us cry, why chilies can leave us gasping, or even, why did the Japanese use missiles made of cadmium against Godzilla? And where can we find these since the existing textbooks are too technical even for students?

But, for this, we must first understand what chemistry is, or rather, what it entails — in our lives.

Stripped of its scientific connotations, chemistry for lay people means an abiding mutual attraction, or attachment, as we say so and so enjoys a "special chemistry", or interaction as in "they lack chemistry". Thus, in a way, the subject can be seen as a microcosm of our personal, social, and professional lives.<br> <br>In its academic manifestation, it is the study of properties and behaviour of matter, but then so is physics. The American science writer and educator Anne Marie Helmenstine notes that chemistry focuses on compounds, the molecules, atoms and ions they are composed of, their composition, structure, and the changes they undergo during an interaction or reaction with other substances, while physics deals more with the nuclear part of the atom, as well as the subatomic realm.

Thus, they are "two sides of the same coin" and chemistry is significant because a knowledge of it helps people understand the world around them — everything that can be touched or tasted or smelled is a chemical, and thus under its domain.

The study of chemistry enables us to understand a bit about how everyday things work, say why gold gleams and can stay untarnished, or why laundry detergent works better in hot water, or why sending an electric spark through a gas can create magic, or why not all pain relievers work equally well on a headache, and so on.

Like for many other varied subjects, there are a number of books that can reveal the deep mysteries of the chemical world, spanning organic, inorganic, and physical, to give the most basic classification.

Of them, it is the middle one, dealing with the 118 elements — at the most basic form as part of compounds — that make us and our universe that receive the most emphasis — due to the exotic substances that populate it.

We are all familiar with carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, sodium, iron, silicon, gold, and silver, and so on, but what about bismuth, cobalt, krypton, yttrium, thorium, astatine, and many others.

Many of us in India had full access till the late 1980s, due to the Soviet government’s largesse, to D.N. Trifonov, a prolific writer on various facets of the subject, with books such as "Silhouettes of Chemistry", which had vignettes on a broad range of chemical matters. Then, there was O.M. Olgin’s "Experiments Without Explosions", which detailed a number of simple chemistry experiments that young people could do in their homes with commonly available substances.

As these are not easily available, let’s check out some which can be obtained.

For a most elementary (pun intended) look at the elements, there is Paul Parsons and Gail Dixon’s "The Periodic Table: A Visual Guide to the Elements (2013), which combines a terse, yet insightful explanation, with some stunning photos of the elements in their primordial state.

Basically, it tells us how to interpret Dmitri Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which groups the elements into an arrangement that showcases their behaviour, as we gain insights into their activities, ranging from the little-known uses of gold in mainstream medicine to the development of the hydrogen bomb.

On the same, but a more limited pattern is Norwegian scientist Anja Royne’s "The Elements We Live By: And Other Surprising Superpowers of the Periodic Table: How Iron Helps Us Breathe, Potassium Lets Us See, and Other Surprising Superpowers of the Periodic Table" (2020), whose title is self-explanatory but has some rivetting insights into the few elements it deals with.

For a more detailed look, there is the indefatigable Sam Kean’s "The Disappearing Spoon…and Other True Tales from the Periodic Table" (2011), which shows how the elements inspired passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession as it follows every single element’s role in human history, finance, mythology, battles, the arts, medicine and the lives of the (mostly) mad scientists who discovered them.

It is here you will find answers to Godzilla’s fate, as well as other many unrealised historical conundrums such as Mahatma Gandhi’s relationship to iodine.

And then in "Caesar’s Last Breath: The Epic Story of The Air Around Us" (2018), he takes us on a different journey on the same route as he shows some of us that may still be inhaling the same molecules as that "most noble Roman" did, or for that matter, some bearing the "traces of Cleopatra’s perfumes, German mustard gas, particles exhaled by dinosaurs or emitted by atomic bombs, even remnants of stardust from the universe’s creation".

Italian chemist and Nazi concentration camp survivor Primo Levi’s "The Periodic Table" (1975), which is a collection of 21 autobiographical short stories connected to various elements, in some way or the other, is an acknowledged classic, but an equally and engaging personal look is afforded by British neurologist, science historian, and writer Oliver Sacks’ "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood" (2001), in which he combines autobiographical elements with the history and science of chemistry.

As a review said: "If you did not think that gallium and iridium could move you, this superb book will change your mind", and reading it will lead you to the same conclusion.

Carbon, which we see and use in the forms of coal, graphite, and diamond, but is also an essential ingredient of the human body, in association with some more fellow elements such as oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, as well as most articles we need to survive and thrive on, from sugar to plastic, also gets its due.

Robert Hazen’s "Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything" (2019) presents the story of this vital element in four movements — Earth, Air, Fire, and Water — as he takes us through nearly 14 billion years of cosmic history, and astronomy, geology, biology, archaeology physics, and chemistry, to explain how carbon is formed in the hearts of stars, why all life forms use it as the basis of their biology, and why it is key for evolution.

These should suffice to whip up an uncontrollable appetite for a deeper dive.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

–Ajit Weekly News<br>vd/srb

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