entertainment

What if water had memory?

It spent some time in a homeopathSome homeopaths believe water has memory. That is how they explain the “medicinal properties” of their concoctions. Apparently people are treated even though the pill or potion may not contain a single molecule of the medicinal agent. But does water really have memory?

That depends on how you define memory. If for water it is defined as the property to have a stable state for sometime, then it has memory, just not a very good one – 50 femtoseconds is its retention time. That’s about 60 million million times shorter than the mythical goldfish’s three-second memory.

But with that “memory”, water could not retain any useful information. The memory is just its ability to form an ordered group of water molecules that can last for 50 femtoseconds. It is a bit like a crowd of people all milling around in train station – there are pockets of order where people are standing around looking at departure boards or getting a coffee. But these groups will disperse after a while. And so it is with water – there are pockets of order where the water molecules are interacting with each other and with things that are dissolved in it, but these are lost pretty quickly.

Let’s try another question. What if water had an elephant’s memory and never forgot?

In that case all the ordered pockets would hang around forever. But it wouldn’t look much like liquid water anymore. Instead it would be quite different; in fact, you would probably call it ice.

How about we try something a bit more bizarre? What if water could remember the molecules that had been dissolved in it long after the original molecules had been diluted away? And then what if that water could still act like them?

That may sound pretty outlandish, but a paper published, in the journal Nature (no less), suggested just that more than 25 years ago. Not surprisingly it proved rather controversial. Pretty soon after publication the paper was discredited, leaving no sound evidence for water being able to remember what has been in it (for any significant length of time).

But let’s ignore the evidence for a moment: what if water could retain a fond memory of long-departed solutes? In that case we’re in trouble, because, as one of my teachers used to say, “chemistry is the study of the soluble”. She meant that chemistry, mostly, involves dissolving compounds in solvents and then reacting them together to get new and interesting compounds. Water is a favourite solvent because more things dissolve in it than anything else.

However, if water can remember what had been in it then even in its purest form it would behave like it was chock full of impurities, with unpredictable results. No chemical reaction performed in water, from DNA fingerprinting to synthesis of a new drug, would ever work consistently.

But water memory isn’t just bad news for chemists – it would also affect the behaviour of your everyday tap water. One day your glass of water might have a flashback of limonene adding a pleasant hint of citrus fruit, the next it might recall capsaicin giving your water a spicy kick.

No need to worry, things wouldn’t get that far. After all you’re 70% water, life evolved in water and almost all reactions in all living things happen in water. If the primordial soup could have been influenced by non-existent chemicals then there would have been no stable environment for the life to have formed. Thus no life, no evolution and no human beings to dream up homeopathy.


Illustrations are by Martin Parker, chemistry teacher at Ampleforth College.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

By October 3, 2013 6 comments entertainment, fun

Twitter Brain’s Chemistry Novel (and other book) recommendations

I’ve been looking for an easy to read book (fiction or non-fiction) to send out to chemistry students before they arrive at Uni. The plan is to have all our first years read the same book before they arrive. With any luck it will give them something to chat about and give our first few lectures a point of reference.

So I asked the twitter brain for its chemistry book recommendations, and here’s what it came up with.

  1. @Sci_ents @DrRubidium Anyone say Greg Benford’s Timescape? More physics but includes NMR, time travel, eco-disaster, and academics.
  2. @Sci_ents @DrRubidium I can recommend an author… Peter Watts.. his first series is chock full of science goodness including chemistry
  3. @sci_ents we’re partial to this one: ht.ly/mrHGn Short stories about a deadly assassin who uses a different poison for each kill
  4. @ChemistryWorld @Sci_ents My friend told me to read “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean. I just checked it out from the library!
  5. @Sci_ents I enjoyed ‘The Girls of Atomic City.” It tells the story of the nuclear bomb development from the “blue collar” people working…
  6. @simonbayly @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld It was Mr Levi whom inspired me onto the chemical trail at age 14. Highly recommended reading.
  7. @BytesizeScience @Sci_ents Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” is a Classical example, but highly metaphorical. Downhill from there.
  8. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld Mr Tompkins by George Gamow
  9. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld The Periodic Table by Primo Levi isn’t a novel exactly, but it is one of the best books ever.
  10. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld @Sci_ents not sure if this counts but “cat’s cradle” by Vonnegut has some nice ideas en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice-nine
  11. @Sci_ents Interesting physics and chemistry in Reflex by Dick Francis. Not exactly concepts though, more application.
  12. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld not really a novel but The Periodic Kingdom by P W Atkins is a great read
  13. @Sci_ents The Documents in the Case, Dorothy L. Sayers. Not much chemistry until the clincher which is chemical concept. (DM for spoiler)
  14. @Sci_ents When I was undergrad, one grad inorg cume at WUSTL included question, “Who killed Missy Moonbeam in The Delta Star?”
  15. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld
    Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks
  16. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld Susan Gaines’ Carbon Dreams?
  17. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld – Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, Penny Le Couteur
  18. @Sci_ents Not exactly fitting the criteria but Primo Levi’s Periodic Table comes to mind
  19. @Sci_ents Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primo_Levi some named as best science novel ever
  20. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld or cat’s cradle if gravity’s rainbow is too much of a slogger
  21. @Sci_ents Emm short answer no. Long shot- Dune. Spice as a drug, water harvesting and terraforming. Best I can do ad hoc
  22. @Sci_ents A Whiff of Death (I. Asimov) — murder mystery set in Chemistry department… The Delta Star (J. Wambaugh) — similar plot.
  23. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld gravity’s rainbow, imopolex g

 

Did we miss any?

#ChemMovieCarnival: Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds is one of my favorite television shows. It follows a team of FBI agents in the Behavioral Analysis Unit. They examine the psychology of crime scenes and the choices of the criminal before, during, and after a crime to build a behavioral profile which ultimately leads to the arrest of the criminal.

The show doesn’t lend itself to chemistry in every episode, but sometimes the show features some interesting opportunities for chemistry. I’ll highlight two here: one light and one sinister.

The resident nerdy genius, Dr. Spencer Reid, (someone to whom I have been compared an uncomfortable number of times…) displays some chemistry magic in a throwaway scene in a season two episode: “Profiler, Profiled.” He wows his coworkers with a ‘magic’ film canister (kids ask your parents what a film canister is) which explodes and shoots like a rocket across the office. Sadly, he calls this merely physics magic, but we’ll let it slide. While the magician doesn’t reveal his secret, it is almost certainly an Alka-Seltzer tablet in water. The bicarbonate and citric acid generate carbon dioxide, which builds up the pressure and causes the canister to fail. Very easy to try at home, where you could also use baking soda and vinegar.

The second example is much more nefarious. In a season six episode, “Sense Memory,” a criminal has an obsession with scents – bad news for a cab driver inundated with aromas every day. We see him flash back to his childhood and, probably, the scent of his mother. This turns criminal when several of his passengers go missing and end up dead. The team’s first clue is the large amount of methanol found in the victims’ lungs. Reid uses his nerdy genius again to educate the team on the properties of methanol.

I’m ok with most of what is presented here… it’s not too bad. Except when he claims methanol can be turned into plywood. Plywood is not made from methanol. In attempting to figure out just what they were talking about, I found that Criminal Minds’ script likely quotes almost directly from methanol’s Wikipedia page. The only latitude I’ll give them is that methanol is turned into formaldehyde which is converted to urea-formaldehyde, the resin used to hold sheets of wood veneer together to make plywood (all also found on Wikipedia).

But enough about that – that’s not even the most interesting chemistry in the episode. It’s the reason why the criminal needs methanol that’s interesting. It’s not just to murder his victims – while that would be unique, it would be perhaps a bit unnecessary. No, instead he needs the methanol in connection with his obsession with scents, particularly the scent from his childhood. His obsession leads him to attempt to preserve that scent, particularly when his job exposes him to so many unpredictable, and often offensive, odors.

He waits until he accepts a passenger with that critical aroma, then abducts them and drowns them in methanol. Essentially, he’s trying to capture eau de humaine. He soaks his victims in methanol to extract their essential oils. Then he distills the resulting solution to concentrate the oils, which he adds to homemade candles to preserve the scent. Some of the setup is questionable (why does the condenser not have water running through it?), but the concept is still interesting and correct enough for me.

Extraction, distillation, essential oils … very gross and disturbing, but creative fictional use of chemistry nonetheless. It goes without saying that you should not soak your friends in methanol for any reason (or your enemies). Instead, stick with chemistry and physics magic with Alka-Seltzer. Your friends will like you much better this way.

By April 21, 2013 2 comments chemical safety, entertainment, fun

#ChemMovieCarnival: Testing Breaking Bad

I can’t believe  no one else has grabbed Breaking Bad for the Chemmoviecarnival.

In case you don’t know its a show about a high school chemistry teacher, called Walter White, who turns his talents to the production of  methamphetamine in an attempt to subliment his measly teacher’s income. In the course of the show Walt deploys his encyclopaedic chemistry knowledge to get him and his dopey (in more ways than one) sidekick out of a few sticky scrapes. They make a battery to jump start a RV, dissolve bodies with HF, prepare ricin to dispose of his enemies and so on.

There’s plenty of neat, and reasonably  accurate, chemistry in the show. But do Walt’s various solutions (pun intended) really hold up to scrutiny? I thought I’d have a go at putting some of them to the test . Fear not, I haven’t started a meth lab in my garage. Instead I tested the scene where our (anti) heros use thermite to melt through a lock.

Here’s my set up. A nice tube of thermite sitting on top of a locked padlock.

 

Fire in the hole!

And its not looking good for the padlock. All that molten iron can’t have done it much good.

But after everything has cooled down….

One intact padlock! It won’t open, because I think the locking mechanism  has melted, but it would certainly keep a door locked.

So I guess that’s a chemistry fail for Walt and Breaking Bad. 

p.s. I think you folks over at Reddit might have taken me a whole lot more seriously than was my intent.

 

By April 21, 2013 4 comments entertainment, fun, general chemistry