Yo, just so you know, I’m going to be reciting my 2nd-place winning poem tomorrow at the Great Big Science Read: Where worlds collide event held at the RiAus. It’s free and I’m going to be there, so if you have a couple of hours you should also come and get some culture, both artistic and bacterial (that’s what we in the poetry business call a double entendre).
Anyway, this post I’m going to analyse the poem that I wish had won –
Filled-valence prudes tut-tut
An extinguished flame
I was taught in high school that all chemistry is electrons. But, of course, it is all eclipsed by things blowing up. Fire is the thing that I most closely relate to chemistry. It is a source of intrinsic passion, of instinctial awe, of heat and danger. And it’s all caused simply oxygen in the air binding to stuff (carbon in the above case). Oxygen is one of the most reactive elements out there, meaning that it has strong desire to bind and couple with other atoms and molecules. When it does so, it relaxes a bit and releases some energy. That energy is the heat.
But if atoms are already bundled up in couples of high affinity, not even oxygen can break that bond (under normal conditions). Nitrogen gas (N2) is an example of atoms that naturally strongly bound together. This bond means that the two nitrogen atoms share electrons (3 from each atom, in this case) and are both satisfied. Satisfaction as atoms are concerned is defined in terms of valency (a complex topic involving periodic tables, electrons and oxidation states). Once an atom’s valence is filled, then it is stable.
Nitrogen gas makes up 70% of the atmosphere. So we blow out mostly nitrogen when we exhale. What we do when we blow out a candle is basically surround the oxygen with highly stable nitrogen gas. Oxygen can’t bind to the nitrogen and can’t get to the carbon that it can bind to. What happens then is that the flame is extinguished because no heat is being produced.