This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Change Isn't Always Good!

This is a rant about chemistry. Actually it’s a rant about chemistry and progress. OK, it’s really a rant about progress which is ruining the natural order of things.

I’ve always loved fireworks. Every June I buy a nice assortment of these lovely incendiary devices and every July I launch them for the whole neighborhood to see. We’re talking about a tradition here. Being a chemist meant I understood many of the reactions taking place. Red explosions indicate the presence of strontium or lithium, green indicates barium, blue means copper, and yellow means sodium. (OK, so I’ve simplified it a bit). Of course this means that a fair amount of toxic compounds are being injected into the atmosphere, but really, is that too much of a price to pay for such wonderfully colorful explosions? Now researchers are trying to develop green (as in environmentally sound) fireworks . Instead of depending upon the energy released during the oxidation of carbon, these new fireworks depend upon the decomposition of metastable, nitrogen-rich compounds such as the tetrazoles and their derivatives (five-membered rings with four nitrogens and one carbon) and tetrazines (six-membered rings with four nitrogens and 2 carbons). They’ve succeeded in duplicating all the colors except for green.

These new-fangled fireworks leave me a little uneasy. Fireworks have always been in the domain of inorganic chemistry and, dammit, they should remain that way. Setting off fireworks which lack heavy metals is to invite anarchy. Keep your hands off my fireworks, organic chemists!

I also love Suzy-Qs. Always have and always will. But over the years, Hostess has slowly been changing the Susy-Q recipe. Although I’m sure the drive to use less expensive ingredients has played its part in this travesty, the desire to make this combination of carbohydrates and fats appear less harmful has led to use of heart-healthy oils. (This misguided attempt to make Suzy-Qs more healthy is like trying to make a nuclear bomb more environmentally friendly.) I haven’t thought about this for years, but I was reminded of it while reading a rant over at the Bad Astronomy blog concerning the quality of Ho-Hos now that their trans-fats have been lowered to zero.

And while I’m on my soapbox, what the hell happened to good movie theatre popcorn? Ever since they replaced the coconut oil they were using, it hasn’t been worth eating. This is progress? Here’s an idea for you organic chemists. Develop a compound (nontoxic, please!) which smells just like popcorn popped in coconut oil and sell it to theatres or to makers of microwave popcorn. You will make a fortune.


Chemgeek said...

"Keep your hands off my fireworks, organic chemists!"

Easy there big fella. None of us Organikers wants to infringe on the sacred turf that is inorganic firework turf. Well, OK, maybe a few losers, but not the majority.

I'm on your side. Leave the fireworks to everything left of zinc. This is the time that we organic chemists should enjoy: the torture of metals.

But, you must admit, there is some organic chemistry involved. It's purely functional and not pretty or super cool, but it is important.

Ψ*Ψ said...

I agree. Let them burn all the metals they want! On that note, I'm also sick of people burning carbon for energy. Nooo! Give it to me! That's my starting material!

Chemist Ken said...

I agree with you chemgeek, the organic chemistry is important. (Ha! I never would have been able to admit that back during grad school) I just don't want to see any of my beloved metals become jobless!

Chemgeek said...


I agree. Quit burning our starting materials!!!!

An oxidized metal can get reduced a lot easier than carbon (see: Global Warming).

It will be a very sad day if fireworks get replaced with carbon-based substitutes. And, I suspect, very boring.

In other words, it will never happen.