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10 Fun Facts About Chemistry

The world around us is a constant flurry of chemical reactions that we never even see and rarely stop to think about. The chemistry of everyday life usually only becomes relevant to us when things get a little dangerous. You spill gasoline on your shoe at the gas station, you accidentally swallow some acid, that sort of thing. And it’s a shame we don’t pay more attention because chemistry is pretty amazing. Just take a look!

10. Most Acid Can’t Dissolve Glass


Glass is one of the most chemically unique substances in the world. It was discovered sometime around 3500 BC and yet it’s still very mysterious to many people. To this day, people like to spread the popular myth that glass isn’t even a solid but a liquid. That’s not true, but it’s a testament to the unusual chemistry of glass that so many people find it perplexing even today. 

Despite being remarkably fragile, the atomic structure of glass is both stable and strong. It’s chiefly made of silicone dioxide, which forms strong, stable chemical bonds. And while this does nothing to make your favorite vase resistant to a hammer, when it comes to chemicals, it’s incredibly durable. Glass is one of the most resistant materials we have and can easily stand up to acids, which would destroy plastics and metals.

For an acid to eat through glass, it needs to be corrosive enough to destabilize the silicone dioxide bonds. Something like sulfuric acid can dissolve most metals and has been used in the past to dissolve human bodies as well. However, it’s safely stored in glass because it’s just not corrosive enough to get through the chemical bonds.

It’s worth noting that most acids suffer this same problem, but not all. The most highly corrosive acids can dissolve glass, which includes any acid that is fluorine based. The electronegativity of fluorine is strong enough to strip electrons from the glass and break down the chemical bonds, dissolving the substance. 

9. Water Expands When it Freezes Unlike Almost Everything Else


Chemistry 101 says that matter expands when it gets hot and contracts when it gets cold. This is true, but not universally true. It’s true with an asterisk. For most substances this makes sense. If you apply heat, that is adding energy. That energy causes the atoms to move faster and they push away from one another a bit because the added energy helps them resist the attractive forces between molecules. This causes the matter to expand. 

The most fun example you can have with this idea is water. Heat up water and it evaporates into a vapor form. The water molecules become less dense and the volume increases.We’ve all seen that happen on the stove when boiling a pot. And as the water cools down it condenses again returning to a liquid state. It becomes less dense and that means it should continue to do so as the water gets even colder. But it doesn’t.

At freezing temperatures most other substances will contract but water likes to be unpredictable. A normal crystalline structure is densely formed. The atoms are organized more tightly so the structure can be more compact and physically smaller. Think of it like packing a suitcase. If you fold and organize everything, you can fit more in the space available. 

Water will contract down to around 4 degrees Celsius. At this point it begins to expand again. It will increase in size by 9% by the time it reaches the freezing point. This all has to do with hydrogen bonds.

The normal atomic stricture of water is a bit of a jumble. Hydrogen and oxygen molecules are held together in a slapdash way. But as water freezes the hydrogen bonds become more organized. One hydrogen evenly spaced between two oxygen. This repeats and creates a very neat lattice structure, but the result is there are clearly defined spaces between the atoms that are not present in the liquid state. These spaces cause the entire molecule to expand ever so slightly. Ice is therefore less dense than liquid water and it’s the reason ice doesn’t sink in water. There are those empty pockets that allow it to float.

8. All Hydrogen is Over 13 Billion Years Old


You may have heard someone waxing poetic once saying that we’re all made of stars. It’s a common sentiment and the idea is that we’re made of the same stuff as the whole universe around us. And that’s more or less true, but it’s actually far more interesting than that little poetic soundbite makes it seem.

The universe came into being about 13.7 billion years ago. At that time, the Big Bang created everything. Every single thing we know today started at that moment, but some of it took longer to come into being than other things. Hydrogen was the first element which makes sense. One proton and one electron in each atom. It’s simple and abundant. About 75% of all the present mass in the universe is hydrogen. 

After hydrogen was formed, helium came along. That has two electrons and two protons. And you can go along the periodic table to see what came next with lithium and so on and so forth.

Many elements were forged in early stars. Things like carbon, which makes up the bones of living things, and trace elements of stuff like copper or magnesium. All of that stuff is billions of years old and is what makes us “stars,” so to speak. But hydrogen is outside of that.

Hydrogen was not made in a star because it predates stars. And the human body is about 10% hydrogen by mass. So 10% of us is older than stars, it’s the stuff of creation itself. Ten percent of a human body is made of the origin of the entire universe because that hydrogen, every atom, dates back 13.7 billion years. 

7. Absolute Zero is Impossible to Reach

The atoms in any substance are constantly in motion. The colder something gets the slower the atoms move, that’s the basic chemistry behind freezing anything. And, as we know, different substances have different freezing points. Pure water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius of -32 degrees Fahrenheit. Ethanol freezes at -114 F, or -174 C. And science has determined what the literal coldest point could ever possibly be. They call it Absolute Zero.

At -459.67°F, the atoms in any given substance would cease moving entirely. Atoms need energy to move. At Absolute Zero, all of that energy has been tapped and there is nothing left. The substance would truly be frozen solid and essentially chemically dead in a way that is hard to define. This has to do with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

According to Heisenberg, you can never know both a particle’s position and speed. At Absolute Zero you could know the speed, which would be zero, but not the position. If you tried to find the position, that process would actually give the atom some energy and thus it’s not really Absolute Zero. 

When considering atoms as waves, the closer they get to Absolute Zero, the larger their waveforms get. At Absolute Zero its waveform would be the size of the universe, which is perplexing and not possible. The atom in this case can’t exist. 

That’s not to say science hasn’t done a great job of reaching cold temperatures. In 2021 we managed to cool atoms down to 0.000000000038 of a kelvin.

6. Two Pieces of the Same Metal Can Bond in Space


Many of us take shop class in high school, and so have a little bit of experience with welding. There are various ways we can weld, but the idea is basically the same. You use heat to melt metal and allow two pieces to bond together as one. It seems pretty simple. And while there are actually many ways to weld metals, the basic principle we’re concerned with here is when the metal is heated to its melting point so that the atoms of both pieces intermingle, usually with a filler metal included. The two pieces become one as the metal cools down.

In space, there is an amazing wrinkle in the process of how welding takes place. In space, cold welding occurs. Two metals can be bonded without the addition of heat. The science behind it is quite fascinating.

Here on earth, if you have two pieces of copper, there is going to be oxidation on the surface of each. Oxygen, water, whatever else has come in contact with the metal and made a microscopic layer on top of it. This layer is like a shell and it’s literally unavoidable in an atmosphere. 

In space, oxidization is obviously not an issue since there’s no oxygen. If you take two pieces of identical metal in the vacuum of space and they are completely clean, then there is no layer of anything between the two. If you touch them together, there is literally nothing separating the atoms of one from the other. The atoms between the first and second piece have no reason not to share space and connect each with each other through chemical bonds. You can put them together in a cold weld and they become one. If you ensure 100% contact between the two pieces, meaning no gaps, then the bond will be perfectly solid. 

5. DNA Can Make Clothing Flame Resistant


The average person likely knows a lot of little things about DNA and how it’s changed the world. From screening for and treating diseases to solving crimes to potentially resurrecting amusement parks full of dinosaurs, it’s one of the most well known parts of science these days. But when you get into the finer details, there’s a lot of fascinating and weird things to learn about DNA. One of the nuttiest things? DNA is flame retardant.

DNA’s structure is supported by a skeleton of phosphate. Try to burn that and you make phosphoric acid. That acid strips water molecules away and leaves a carbon residue behind. It also produces ammonia which prevents combustion. So trying to burn DNA results in a one-two punch of fire-fighting chemical reactions. The result is a layer of carbon that prevents combustion.

The process of coating cotton in DNA is not super difficult, but it’s also not currently the most practical safety method at our disposal. It’s a little pricey, and it comes off when you wash the clothes. But the science is solid. Overcome those two factors and you can have a way to flameproof clothing that doesn’t alter the look or feel of the fabric, and is also environmentally friendly.

4. The Sun Isn’t Actually on Fire

solar flare

One of the most obvious things to anyone who looks up at the sky on a clear day is that the sun is a giant ball of fire in the sky. Take a look at some photos of the sun provided by NASA and you’ll see all the crazy flares and the swirling, burning surface, which just further confirm that the center of our solar system is a cosmic furnace. A 432,690 mile radius inferno that weighs about two octillion tons. That’s a hell of a thing. But it’s also wrong.

The size isn’t wrong and the weight isn’t wrong but the action is. The sun is not on fire. This is one of those things that seems almost too obvious when you start to wonder how it can burn at all with no oxygen out there. That’s because many people think of the sun the wrong way. 

The sun doesn’t burn like charcoal in a barbecue. Instead, it’s a massive nuclear fusion reaction. Hydrogen proteins are fusing inside the sun to form helium. This reaction produces massive energy in the form of both light and heat. Of course, there are other reactions happening as well. Deuterium forms and the helium nuclei come in several forms. Gamma rays are released, and the energy is all pushed out from the core to what we’d consider the surface of the sun. This is all released as light and heat and makes it look like the sun is on fire, even though it’s technically not. 

3. Asparagus Makes Everyone’s Urine Smell… But Not Everyone Can Smell it


Arguably the most important chemistry-related question of our time is “why does asparagus make pee smell funny?” There’s more science behind this than a lot of people realize, however.

Most people, after eating asparagus, have noticed that it causes a strange, musty smell when they urinate. Not all people experience this, however. So what’s going on? It’s a bunch of oddly unique science.

Asparagus contains the appropriately named asparagusic acid. This substance on its own does not smell. However, eating it causes chemical changes and the production of new biochemical compounds in your body. These new compounds, filtered through your insides and then excreted as urine, make a unique odor. And this happens to everyone.

Now some people in the world have not experienced the odor, which is to say they eat asparagus and smell nothing. But just because you don’t smell something doesn’t mean it’s not there. As it happens, the ability to smell this odor is also a unique part of science. Some people are genetically incapable of smelling it. So while they produce the same smelly compounds, they just don’t notice it because they don’t have the pee-smelling gene. 

2. Superfluid Helium Seems to Defy Physics

We already touched on Absolute Zero as a concept, but what these ultra low temperatures can do is also a marvel of chemistry. Few things get weirder than helium when it’s cooled down to near Absolute Zero. When you bring it to 3.2 degrees above that temperature, helium changes from a gas to a liquid. It becomes what scientists call a superfluid and they’re not using that term lightly. Superfluid helium basically laughs in the face of what most people think they know of science.

In liquid form, helium is able to flow upward. It will climb right up the side of containers that are used to hold it. Spin it in a circle and it will spin for eternity, no longer trapped by the slowing effects of things like friction. Ironically, if you rotate just the container, the liquid will stay still inside. This is what makes it “super” in the chemical use of the word. It flows without resistance. The liquid has no entropy or viscosity. It can even pass through membranes that otherwise seem solid. 

Superfluid helium’s weird properties are thanks to something called Bose-Einstein condensation. In simple terms, that means, at ultra low temperatures, the atoms all overlap so much it’s like making one big, single atom. Everything works together to give it unique properties you can’t find in matter where the atoms are all still acting as individuals. And, lucky for us, it can actually be observed in lab conditions. 

1. Pencil Lead and Diamonds are Chemically Identical


One diamond carat equals 200 milligrams. One gram of diamond would be worth around $36,000. This wouldn’t be a pristine and valuable diamond, either. This is just a basic, bargain diamond. A metric ton of graphite, that stuff you find in pencils, will cost you about $690 US. Suffice it to say, diamonds cost a heck of a lot more than graphite. The reason this is in any way interesting is that, chemically, graphite and diamond are the exact same thing. Both are made of pure carbon and nothing else.

The reason diamond and the tip of your pencil can be the same thing is one of the quirks of chemistry that makes it so interesting. It’s not enough that the atoms inside of a substance are the same, they need to be organized the same way. It’s like making eggs for breakfast. You could poach an egg, fry an egg or scramble an egg and get three very different-looking meals without ever adding a new ingredient. Carbon is kind of the same.

Atoms of carbon in a diamond are bonded in tetrahedral structures. Every atom attaches to four more atoms. This three-dimensional arrangement is the secret to the strength of a diamond. Graphite, on the other hand, forms in sheet-like layers where the atoms are bonded to three other atoms at the corners to make hexagons. 

The difference in structure makes graphite much softer. Soft enough that it flakes off on paper and can even be used as a lubricant. Well, that and a lot of money.

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