The Sight And Sound of Snow

<ring> “Moire here.”

“Uncle Sy! Uncle Sy! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!”

“Yes, Teena, it started last night after you went to bed. But it’s real early now and I haven’t had breakfast yet. I’ll be over there in a little while and we can do snow stuff.”

“Yaaay! I’ll have breakfast, too. Mommie, can we have oatmeal with raisins?” <click>


<knock, knock> “Uncle Sy! You’re here! I wanna go sledding! Get my sled out, please?”

“G’morning, Sis. G’morning, Teena. Get your snowsuit and boots on, Sweetie. Want to come along, Sis? It’s a cold, dry snow, not much wind.”

“No, I’ll just stay warm and get the hot chocolate ready.”

“Bless you for that, Sis. OK, young’un, ready to go?”

“Ready! Pull me on the sled to the sledding hill, Uncle Sy!”


“Ooo, it’s so quiet. Why’s it always quiet when snow’s falling, Uncle Sy? Is the world holding its breath? And why is snow white? When I hold snow in my hand it melts and then it’s no-color.”

“Always the good questions. Actually, these two are related and they both have to do with the shape of snowflakes. Here, hold out your arm and let’s see if you can catch a few. No, don’t try to chase them, the breeze from your arm will blow them away. Just let them fall onto your arm. That’s right. Now look at them real close.”

“They’re all spiky, not flat and pretty like the ones in my picture book!”

“That’s because they grew fast in a really cold cloud and didn’t have time to develop evenly. You have to work slow to make something that’s really pretty.”

“But if they’re spiky like this they can’t lay down flat together and be cozy!”

“Ah, that’s the key. Fresh spiky snowflakes make fluffy snow, which is why skiers love it. See how the flakes puff into the air when I scuff my boot? Those tiny spikes break off easily and make it easy for a ski to glide over the surface. Your sled, too — you’ve grown so big I’d be hard-put to pull you over wet snow. That fluffiness is why <hushed voice> it’s so quiet now.”

“Shhh … <whispered> yeah … <back to full voice> Wait, how does fluffy make quiet?”

“Because sound waves … Have we talked about sound waves? I guess we haven’t. OK, clap your hands once.”

<CLAP!>

“Good. When your hands came together they pushed away the air molecules that were between them. Those molecules pushed on the next molecules and those pushed on the next ones on and on until they got to your ear and you heard the sound. Make sense?”

“Ye-aa-uh. Is the push-push-push the wave?”

“Exactly. OK, now imagine that a wave hits a wall or some packed-down icy snow. What will happen?”

“It’ll bounce off like my paddle-ball toy!”

“Smart girl. Now imagine that a wave hits fluffy snow.”

“Um … it’ll get all lost bouncing between all the spikes, right?”

“Perfect. That’s exactly what happens. Some of the wave is scattered by falling snowflakes and much of what’s left spreads into the snow on the ground. That doesn’t leave much sound energy for us to hear.”

“You said that snow’s white because of what snow does to sound, but look, it’s so bright I have to squint my eyes!”

“That’s not exactly what I said, I said they’re related. Hmm… ah! You know that ornament your Mommie has hanging in the kitchen window?”

“The fairy holding the glass jewel? Yeah, when the sunlight hits it there’s rainbows all over the room! I love that!”

A beam or white light passing through two prisms.  The first produces a spectrum and the second remixes the colors to white.

“I do, too. White light like sunlight has all colors in it and that jewel splits the colors apart so you can see them. Well, suppose that jewel is surrounded by other jewels that can put the colors together again. Here’s a picture on my cellphone for a clue.”

“White goes to rainbow and back to white again … I’ll bet the snowflakes act like little jewels and bounce all the colors around but the light doesn’t get trapped and it comes out and we see the WHITE again! Right?”

“So right that we’re going home for hot chocolate.”

“Yaaay!”

~~ Rich Olcott

PS – A Deeper Look.

Never Chuck Muck at A Duck

Mr Richard Feder of Fort Lee NJ is in terrible shape. Barely halfway into our walk around the park’s lake, he flops onto a bench to catch his breath. The geese look on unsympathetically. “<puff, puff> I got another question, Moire. <wheeze> Why is water wet?”

He’s just trying to make conversation while his heart slows down but I take him up on it. “Depends on what you mean by ‘wet‘ — that’s a slippery word, can be a verb or an adjective or a noun. If you wet something, you’ve got a wet something. If there’s wet weather you go out in the wet. If you live in a wet jurisdiction you can buy liquor if you’re old enough. You can even have wet and dry molecules. Which are you asking about?”

That’s gotten him thinking, always a good sign. “Let’s start with the verb thing. Seems like that’s the key to the others.”

“So we’re asking, ‘Does water wet?‘ The answer is, ‘Sometimes,‘ and that’s where things get interesting. That duck over there, diving for something on the bottom, but when it comes back up again the water rolls off it like –“

“Don’t say it — ‘like water off a duck’s back‘ — yeah, I know, but I’m sweating over here and that ain’t rolling off. Why the difference?”

“Blame it on the Herence twins, Co and Addie.”

“Come again?”

“A little joke, has to do with two aspects of stickiness. Adherence is … you know adhesive tape?”

“Adhe — you playin’ word games, Moire?”

“No, really, adhesive and adherence are both about sticking together things that are chemically different, like skin and tape. Coherence is about stickiness between things that are chemically similar, like sweat and skin.”

“What makes things ‘chemically similar’?”

“Polarity. I don’t want to get into the weeds here –“

“Better not, the ground’s squishy over there.”

“– but there are certain pairs of atoms, like oxygen and hydrogen, where one atom pulls a small amount of electron charge away from the other and you wind up with part of a molecule being plus-ish and another part being minus-ish. That makes the molecule polar. Other pairings, like carbon and hydrogen, are more evenly matched. You don’t get charge separation from them and we call that being non-polar. Charge variation in polar molecules forces them to cluster together positive-to-negative. The electrostatic gang crowds out any nearby non-polar molecules.”

“What’s all that got to do with wetting?”

“Water’s all oxygen and hydrogen and quite polar. Water coheres to itself. If it didn’t you’d get rain-smear instead of raindrops. It also adheres to polar materials like skin and hair and bricks, so raindrops wet them. But it doesn’t adhere to non-polar materials like oil and wax. Duck feathers are oily so they shed water.”

“So that’s why the duck doesn’t get wet!”

“Not unless you throw detergent on him, like they have to do with waterfowl after an oil spill. Detergent molecules have a polar end and a non-polar end so they can bridge the electro divide. Rubbing detergent into a dirty bird’s sludgy oil coating lets water sink into the mess and break it up so you can rinse it off. The problem is that the detergent also washes off the good duck oil. If you let a washed-off duck go swimming too soon after his bath the poor thing will sink. You have to give him time to dry off and replenish his natural feather-oil.”

“Hey, you said ‘wet-and-dry molecules.’ How can they be both?”

“Because they’re really big, thousands of atoms if they’re proteins, even bigger for other kinds of polymers. Anything that large can have patches that are polar and other patches that are oily. In fact, patchwise polarity is critical to how proteins get their 3-D structure and do their jobs. A growing protein strand wobbles around like a spring-toy puzzle until positive bits match up with negative bits and oily meets up with oily. Probably water molecules sneak into the polar parts, too. The configuration’s only locked down when everything fits.”

“So water’s wet because water wets water. Hah!”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Museum visitor Jessie for asking this question.

Where would you put it all?

Vinnie’s a big guy but he’s good at fading into the background. I hadn’t even noticed him standing in the back corner of Cathleen’s impromptu seminar room until he spoke up. “That’s a great theory, Professor, but I wanna see numbers for it.”

“Which part of it don’t you like, Vinnie?”

“You made it seem so easy for all those little sea thingies to scrub the carbon dioxide out of Earth’s early atmosphere and just leave the nitrogen and oxygen behind. I mean, that’d be a lot of CO2. Where’d they put it all?”

“That’s a reasonable question, Vinnie. Lenore, could you put your Chemistry background to work on it for us?”

“Oh, this’ll be fun, but I don’t want to do it in my head. Mr Moire, could you fire up Old Reliable for the calculations?”

“No problem. OK, what do you want to calculate?”

“Here’s my plan. Rather than work with the number of tons of carbon in the whole atmosphere, I’ll just look at the sky-high column of air sitting on a square meter of Earth’s surface. We’ll figure out how many moles of CO2 would have been in that column back then and then work on how thick a layer of carbon stuff it would make on the surface. Does that sound like a good attack, Professor?”

“Sure, but I see a couple of puzzled looks in the class. You’d better say something about moles first.”

“Hey, I know about moles. Sy and me talked about ’em when he was on that SI kick. They’re like a super dozen, right, Sy?”

“Right, Vinnie. A mole of anything is 6.02×1023 of that thing. Eggs, atoms, gas molecules, even stars if that’d be useful.”

“Back to my plan. First thing is the CO2 was in that column back when. Maria, your chart showed that Venus’ atmospheric pressure is 100 times ours and Mars’ is 1/100 ours and each of them is nearly pure CO2, right? So I’m going to assume that Earth’s atmosphere was what we have now plus a dose of CO2 that’s the geometric mean of Venus and Mars. OK, Professor?”

“That’d be a good starting point, Lenore.”

“Good. Now we need the mass of that CO2, which we can get from the weight of the column, which we can get from the air pressure, which is what?”

Every car buff in the room, in chorus — “14½ pounds per square inch.”

“I need that in kilograms per square meter.”

“Strictly speaking, pressure’s in newtons per square meter. There’s a difference between weight and force, but for this analysis we can ignore that. Keep going, Lenore.”

“Thanks, Professor. Sy?”

“Old Reliable says 10194 kg/m².”

“So we’ve got like ten-thousand kilograms of CO2 in that really tall meter-square column of ancient air. Now divide that by, um, 44 to get the number of moles of CO2. No, wait, then multiply by 1000 because we’ve got kilograms and it’s 44 grams per mole for CO2.”

“232 thousand moles. Still sounds like a lot.”

“I’m not done. Now we take that carbon and turn it into coal which is solid carbon mostly. One mole of carbon from each mole of CO2. Take the 232 thousand moles, multiply by 12 grams, no make that 0.012 kilogram per mole –“

“2786 kilograms”

“Right. Density of coal is about 2 grams per cc or … 2000 kilograms per cubic meter. So. Divide the kilograms by 2000 to get cubic meters.”

“1.39 meters stacked on that square-meter base.”

“About what I guessed it’d be. Vinnie, if Earth once had a carbon-heavy atmosphere log-halfway between Venus and Mars, and if the sea-plankton reduced all its CO2 down to coal, it’d make a layer all over the planet not quite as tall as I am. If it was chalk it’d be thicker because of the additional calcium and oxygen atoms. A petroleum layer would be thicker, too, with the hydrogens and all, but still.”

Jeremy’s nodding vigorously. “Yeah. We’ve dug up some of the coal and oil and put it back into the atmosphere, but there’s mountains of limestone all over the place.”

Cathleen’s gathering up her papers. “Add in the ocean-bottom carbonate ooze that plate tectonics has conveyor-belted down beneath the continents over the eons. Plenty of room, Vinnie, plenty of room.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Moon And Chalk

Cathleen’s talking faster near the end of the class. “OK, we’ve seen how Venus, Earth and Mars all formed in the same region of the protosolar disk and have similar overall compositions. We’ve accounted for differences in their trace gasses. So how come Earth’s nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere is so different from the CO2-nitrogen environments on Venus and Mars? Let’s brainstorm — shout out non-atmospheric ways that Earth is unique. I’ll record your list on Al’s whiteboard.”

“Oceans!”

“Plate tectonics!”

“Photosynthesis!”

“Limestone!”

“The Moon!”

“Wombats!” (That suggestion gets a glare from Cathleen. She doesn’t write it down.)

“Goldilocks zone!”

“Magnetic field!”

“People!”

She registers the last one but puts parentheses around it. “This one’s literally a quickie — real-world proof that human activity affects the atmosphere. Since the 1900s gaseous halogen-carbon compounds have seen wide use as refrigerants and solvents. Lab-work shows that these halocarbons catalyze conversion of ozone to molecular oxygen. In the 1970s satellite data showed a steady decrease in the upper-atmosphere ozone that blocks dangerous solar UV light from reaching us on Earth’s surface. A 1987 international pact banned most halocarbon production. Since then we’ve seen upper-level ozone concentrations gradually recovering. That shows that things we do in quantity have an impact.”

“How about carbon dioxide and methane?”

“That’s a whole ‘nother topic we’ll get to some other day. Right now I want to stay on the Mars-Venus-Earth track. Every item on our list has been cited as a possible contributor to Earth’s atmospheric specialness. Which ones link together and how?”

Adopted from image by Immanuel Giel, CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronomer-in-training Jim volunteers. “The Moon has to come first. Moon-rock isotope data strongly implies it condensed from debris thrown out by a huge interplanetary collision that ripped away a lot of what was then Earth’s crust. Among other things that explains why the Moon’s density is in the range for silicates — only 60% of Earth’s density — and maybe even why Earth is more dense than Venus. Such a violent event would have boiled off whatever atmosphere we had at the time, so no surprise the atmosphere we have now doesn’t match our neighbors.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes takes it from there. “That could also account for why only Earth has plate tectonics. I ran the numbers once to see how the Moon’s volume matches up with the 70% of Earth’s surface that’s ocean. Assuming meteor impacts grew the Moon by 10% after it formed, I divided 90% of the Moon’s present volume by 70% of Earth’s surface area and got a depth of 28 miles. That’s nicely within the accepted 20-30 mile range for depth of Earth’s continental crust. It sure looks like our continental plates are what’s left of the Earth’s original crust, floating about on top of the metallic magma that Earth held onto.”

Jeremy gets excited. “And the oceans filled up what the continents couldn’t spread over.”

“That’s the general idea.”

Al’s not letting go. “But why does Earth have so much water and why is it the only one of the three with a substantial magnetic field?”

Cathleen breaks in. “The geologists are still arguing about whether Earth’s surface water was delivered by billions of incoming meteorites or was expelled from deep subterranean sources. Everyone agrees, though, that our water is liquid because we’re in the Goldilocks zone. The water didn’t steam away as it probably did on Venus, or freeze below the surface as it may have on Mars. Why the magnetic field? That’s another ‘we’re still arguing‘ issue, but we do know that magnetic fields protect Earth and only Earth from incoming solar wind.”

“So we’re down to photosynthesis and … limestone?”

“Photosynthesis was critical. Somewhere around two billion years ago, Earth’s sea-borne life-forms developed a metabolic pathway that converted CO2 to oxygen. They’ve been running that engine ever since. If Earth ever did have CO2 like Venus has, green things ate most of it. Some of the oxygen went to oxidizing iron but a lot was left over for animals to breathe.”

“But what happened to the carbon? Wouldn’t life’s molecules just become CO2 again?”

“Life captures carbon and buries it. Chalky limestone, for instance — it’s calcium carbonate formed from plankton shells.”

Jim grins. “We owe it all to the Moon.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Traces of Disparity

Cathleen’s an experienced teacher — she knows when off-topic class discussion is a good thing, and when to get back to the lesson plan. “My challenge question remains — why isn’t Earth’s atmosphere some average of the Mars and Venus ones? Thanks to Jeremy and Newt and Lenore we have reason to expect the planets to resemble each other, but in fact their atmospheres don’t. Maria, tell us what you’ve found about how Earth compares with the others.”

“Yes, Profesora. I found numbers for many of the gasses on each planet and put them into this chart. One thing Earth is right in the middle, most things not.”

“That’s a complicated chart. Read it out to us.”

“Of course. I had to make the vertical scales logarithmic to get the big numbers and small numbers on the same chart. First is the pressure which is the black dotted line. Venus pressure at the surface is nearly 100 times ours but Mars pressure is a bit less than 1/100th of ours. Does that count as Earth being in the middle?”

“That’d be a geometric average. It could be significant, we’ll see. Go on.”

“The gas that is almost the same everywhere is helium, the grey diamonds. That surprised me, because I thought the giant planets got all of that.”

Al’s been listening in. Nothing else going on in his coffee shop, I guess. “I’ll bet most of that helium came from radioactive rocks, not from space. Alpha particles, right, Cathleen?”

Cathleen takes unexpected interruptions in stride. “Bad bet, Al. Uranium and other heavy elements do emit alphas which pick up electrons to become helium atoms. You probably remembered Cleve and Langlet, who first isolated helium from uranium ore. However, the major source of atmospheric alphas is the solar wind. Solar wind interception and atmosphere mass are both proportional to planetary surface area so a constant concentration like this is reasonable. Continue, Maria.”

“The major gasses follow a pattern — about the same fractions on Venus and Mars but much higher or lower than on Earth. Look at carbon dioxide, nitrogen, even oxygen.”

Astronomer-in-training Jim has been doing some mental arithmetic. “Our atmosphere is 100 times denser than on Mars, and Venus is another factor of 100 beyond that. That’s a factor of 104 between them — for every molecule of CO2 on Mars there’s 10,000 on Venus. Oh, but Venus has four times Mars’ surface area so make that 40,000.”

“Good points, both of you. Jim’s approximation leads into something we can learn from Maria’s trace gas numbers. Why do you suppose the concentration of SO2 is about the same for Earth and Mars but 100 times higher on Venus, but the reverse is true for argon? Where do they each come from?”

Jeremy finally has something he can contribute. “Volcanoes! They told us in Geology class that most of our SO2 comes from volcanoes. Before the Industrial Revolution, I mean, when we started burning high-sulfur coal and fuel oils and made things worse. Venus has to be the same. Except for the industry, of course.”

“Probably correct, Jeremy. From radar mapping of Venus we know that it has over 150 large volcanoes. We don’t know how many of them are active, but the Venus Express spacecraft sent back evidence of active vulcanism. In fact, Venus’ SO2 score would probably be even higher if much of its production didn’t oxidize to SO3. That combines with water to form the clouds of sulfuric acid that hide the planet’s surface and reflect sunlight so brightly.”

Maria’s hand is up again. “I don’t understand argon’s purple diamonds, profesora. I know it’s one of the inert gasses so it doesn’t have much chemistry and can’t react into a mineral like CO2 and SO2 can. Shouldn’t argon be about the same on all three planets, like helium?”

“Mm-hm, argon does have a simple chemistry, but its radiochemistry isn’t so simple. Nearly 100% of natural argon is the argon-40 isotope created by radioactive decay of potassium-40. Potassium is tied up in the rocks, so the atmospheric load of argon-40 depends on rocky surface erosion. Not much erosion, not much argon.”

Al’s on tenterhooks. “All this is nice, but you still haven’t said why Earth’s atmosphere is so different.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Still of The Night

Lenore raises her hand. “Maybe it’s my Chemistry background, but to me that protosolar disk model for the early Solar System looks like a distillation process. You heat up a mixture in the pot and then run the resulting vapors through a multi-stage condenser. Different components of the mixture collect at different points in the condenser depending on the local temperature or maybe something about the condenser’s surface. I got some fun correlations from data I dug up related to that idea.”

“Interesting perspective, Lenore You’re got the floor.”

“Thanks, Professor. Like Newt said, hydrogen and helium atoms are so light that even a low-energy photon or solar wind particle can give them a healthy kick away from the Sun and they wind up orbiting where the gas planets grew up. But there was more sorting than that. Check out this chart.”

“What’re the bubbles?”

“Each bubble represents one planet. I’ve scaled the bubble to show what fraction of the planet is its nickel-iron core. Mercury, for instance, is two-thirds core; the other third is its silicate crust and that’s why its overall density is up there between iron and silicates. Then you go through Venus and Earth, all apparently in the zone where gravity’s inward pull on heavy dust particles is balanced by the solar wind’s intense outward push. From the chart I’d say that outbound metallic and rocky materials are mostly gone by the asteroid belt. Big Jupiter grabs most of the the hydrogen and helium; its little brothers get the leavings. Mars looks like it’s right on the edge of the depletion zone — the numbers suggest that its core, if it has one, is only 12% of its mass.”

Jeremy’s ears prick up. “If it has one?”

“Yeah, the sources I checked couldn’t say for sure whether or not it does. That’s part of why we sent the Insight lander up there. Its seismic data should help decide the matter. With such a small iron content the planet could conceivably have cooled like silicate raisin bread. It might have isolated pockets of iron here and there instead of gathered in at the center.”

“Weird. So the giant planets are all — wait, what’s Saturn doing with a density below water’s?”

“You noticed that. Theoretically, if you could put Saturn on a really big pool of water in a gravity field it’d float.”

Meanwhile, astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes has been inspecting the chart. “Uranus and Neptune don’t fit the pattern, Lenore. If it’s just a matter of ‘hydrogen flees farthest,’ then those two ought to be as light as Saturn, maybe lighter.”

“Yeah, that bothered me, too. Uranus and Neptune are giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn, but they’re not ‘gas giants,’ they’re ‘ice giants.’ All four of them seem to have a junky nickel-iron-silicate core, maybe 1-to-10 times Earth’s mass, but aside from that the gas giants are mainly elemental hydrogen and helium whereas Uranus and Neptune are mostly compounds of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon with hydrogen.”

“How’d all those light atoms get so far out beyond the big guys?”

“Not a clue. Can you help, Professor?”

Cathleen draws ellipses on Al’s whiteboard. “Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t — the jury’s still out. We’re used to our nice neat modern Solar System where almost everything follows nearly circular orbits. It took a while to evolve there starting from the chaotic protosolar disk. Many of the early planetesimals probably had narrow elliptical orbits if they had an orbit at all, considering how often they collided with each other. Astromechanics modelers have burned years of computer time trying to account for what we know of the planets, asteroids, comets and the Kuiper and Oort formations we’ve barely begun to learn about. Some popular ‘Jumping Jupiter‘ models show Jupiter and Saturn migrating in towards the Sun and out again, playing hob with Uranus, Neptune and maybe a third ice giant before that one was ejected from the system altogether. It’s entirely possible that the ice giants grew up Sunward of the hydrogen-rich gas giants. We just don’t know.”

“That’s a challenge.”

“Yes, and my challenge question remains — why isn’t Earth’s atmosphere some average of the Mars and Venus ones?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Helios versus Mars, Planetary Version

Al waves me over the moment I step through the door of his coffee shop.  “Sy, ya gotta squeeze into the back room.  The grad students are holding another Crazy Theory contest and they’re having a blast.  I don’t know enough science to keep up with ’em but you’d love it.  Here’s your coffee.”

“Thanks, Al.  I’ll see what’s going on.”

The Crazy Theory contest is a hallowed Al’s Coffee Shop tradition — a “seminar” where grad students present their weirdest ideas in competition.  Another tradition (Al is strong on this one) is that the night’s winner has to sweep up the thrown spitballs and crumpled paper napkins at the end of the presentations.  I weave my way in just as the girl at the mic finishes her pitch with, “… and that’s why Spock and horseshoe crabs both have green blood!”

Some in the crowd start chanting “Amanda!  Amanda!  Amanda!”  She’s already reaching for the Ceremonial Broom when Jim steps up to the mic and waves for quiet.  “Wanna hear how the Sun oxidized Mars and poisoned it for us?”

Helios and Mars
Helios and Mars
Mars image adopted from photo by Mark Cartwright
Creative Commons license
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Voice from the crowd — <“The Sun did what?”>

“You remember titration from school chem lab?”

.——<“Yeah, you put acid in a beaker and you drip in a base until the solution starts to turn red.”>

“What color is Mars?”

.——<“Red!”>

“Well, there you are.”

.——<“Horse-hockey!  What’s that got to do with the Sun or what you said about poison?”>

“Look at what our rovers and orbiters found on Mars — atmosphere only 1% of Earth’s but even that’s mostly CO2, no liquid water at the surface, rust-dust everywhere, soil’s loaded with perchlorate salts.  My Crazy Theory can explain all of that.”

.——<“Awright, let’s hear it!”>

“Titration’s all about counting out chemical species.  Your acid-base indicator pinked when you’d neutralized your sample’s H+ ions by adding exactly the right number of OH ions to turn them all into H2O, right?  So think about Mars back in the day when it had liquid water on the ground and water vapor in the atmosphere.  Along comes solar radiation, especially the hard ultra-violet that blows apart stratospheric H2O molecules.  ZOT!  Suddenly you’ve got two free hydrogen atoms and an oxygen floating around.  Then what happens?”

It’s a tough crowd.  <“We’re dying to hear!  Get on with it!”>

“The hydrogens tie up as an H2 molecule.  The escape velocity on Mars is well below the speed of H2 molecules at any temperature above 40K, so those guys abandon Mars for the freedom of Space.  Which leaves the oxygen atom behind, hungry for electrons and ready to oxidize anything it can get close to.”

They’re starting to come along.  <“Wouldn’t the oxygen form O2 and fly away too?”>

“Nowhere near as quickly.  An O2 molecule is 16 times heavier than an H2 molecule.  At a given temperature it moves 1/4 as fast and mostly stays on-planet where it can chew up the landscape.”

.——<“How could an atom do that?”>

“It’s a chain process.  First step for the O is to react with something else in the atmosphere — make an oxidizing molecule like ozone or hydrogen peroxide.  That diffuses down to ground level where it can eat rocks.”

.——<“Wait, ‘eat rocks’!!?!  How does that happen?”>

“Look, most rocks are basically lattices of double-negative oxide ions with positive metal ions tucked in between to balance the charge.  Surface oxide ions can’t be oxidized by an ozone molecule, but they can transmit electron demand down to the metal ions immediately underneath.  An iron2+ ion gets oxidized to iron3+, one big step towards rust-dust.  The charge change disrupts the existing oxide lattice pattern and that piece of the rock erodes a little.”

.——<“What about the poison?”>

“Back when Mars had oceans, they had to have lots of chloride ions floating around to be left behind when the ocean dried up.  Ozone converts chloride to perchlorate, ClO4, which is also a pretty good oxidizer.  Worse, it’s the right size and charge to sneak into your thyroid gland and mess it up.  Poison for sure.  Chemically, solar radiation raised the oxidation state of the whole planet.”

One lonely voice — “Nice try, Jim” — but then the chant returns…

.——<“Amanda!  Amanda!  Amanda!”>

~~ Rich Olcott

Three atop A Crosshatch

“Hey, Sy, what you said back there, ‘three and a fraction‘ ways to link atoms together…”

“Yeah, Vinnie?”

“What’s that about?  How do fractions come in when you’re counting?”

“Well, I was thinking about how atoms in separate molecules can interact short of reacting and forming new molecular orbitals.  I figure that as a fraction.”

Charge sharing ain’t the whole story?”

“It would be except that sharing usually isn’t equal.  It depends on where the atoms are in the Periodic Table.”

“What’s it got to do with the Periodic Table?”

“The Table’s structure reflects atom structures — how many shells are active in a base-state atom of each element and how many units of charge are in its outermost shell.  Hydrogen and Helium are in Row 1 because the 1-node shell is the only active one in those atoms.  The atoms from Lithium to Neon in Row 2 have charge activating both the 1-node shell and the 2-node shell, and so on.”

“What’s that get us?”

“It gets us a feel for how the atoms behave.  You know I’m all about dimensions, right?”

“Ohhh, yeah.”

“OK, we’ve got a two-dimensional table here.  Going across, each atom’s nucleus has one more proton than its buddy to the left.  What’s that going to do to the electronic charge?”

“Gonna pull it in closer.”

“Wait, Vinnie, there’s an extra electron in there, too.  Won’t that cancel out the proton, Sy?”

“Good thinking, Eddie.  Yes, it does, but only partially.  The atoms do get smaller as you go across, but it’s irregular because negative-negative repulsion within a shell works to expand it almost as much as negative-positive attraction contracts it.”

“Bet things get bigger as you go down the Table, though.”

“Mostly, Vinnie, because each row down adds a shell that’s bigger than the shrinking inner shells.”

“Mostly?”

“The bigger shells with more nodes have more complex charge patterns than just balls and dumbbells.  Those two rows below the main table actually squinch into the lowest two boxes in the third column.  In those elements, some of the activated patterns barely shield the nucleus.  The atoms to their right in the main table are almost identical in size to the elements above them.”

“So I can guess an atom’s size.  So what?”

“So that and the charge give you a handle on the element’s properties and chemistry.  Up there in the top right corner you’ve got the atoms with the highest ratio of nuclear charge to size.  If given the opportunity to pull charge from atoms to their left and below them, what do you suppose happens?”

“You get lop-sided bonds, I guess.”

“Exactly.  In water, for instance, the Oxygen pulls charge towards itself and away from the Hydrogen atoms.  That makes each O-H bond a little dipole, positive-ish at the hydrogen end and negative-ish at the oxygen end.”

“Won’t the positive-ish ends pull on the negative-ish parts of next-door molecules?”

“You’ve just invented hydrogen bonding, Eddie.  That’s exactly what happens in liquid water.  Each molecule can link up like that with many adjacent ones and build a huge but floppy structure.  It’s floppy because hydrogen bonds are nowhere near as strong as orbital-sharing bonds.  Even so, the energy required to move through liquid H2O or to vaporize it is much greater than for liquid methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3) or any similar molecule.”

“Can that pull-away action go all the way?”

“You’ve just invented ionic bonding, Vinnie.  The elements in the Oxygen and Fluorine columns can extract charge completely away from many of those far to the left and below them.  Fluorine steals charge from Lithium, for instance.  Fluoride ions are net negative, lithium ions are net positive.  Opposites attract, same as always, but now it’s  entire ions that attract each other and you get crystals.”

“That’s your and-a-fraction?”

“Not quite, Vinnie.  There’s one more, Van der Waals forces.  They come from momentary polarizations as electron chaos sloshes back and forth in neighboring molecules.  They’re why solids are solid even without ionic or hydrogen bonding.”

“Geez, look at the time.  Rosalie’s got my dinner waiting.  Bye, guys, everybody out!”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Mastery of The Pyramids

“Hard to believe, Sy.”

“What’s hard to believe, Vinnie?”

“What you said back there, about all molecules being tetrahedron-shaped.”

“Whoa, that’s not what I said.  What I did say was that the tetrahedron is the fundamental structural building block for most of the Universe’s molecules. To put a finer point on it, it’s the building block for most kinds of molecules.”

“What kinds are you leaving out?”

“Molecular hydrogen, for instance.  It’s probably the most common molecule in the Universe but it’s got only two atoms and two electrons and it doesn’t do tetrahedra.  I was talking about almost all the other flavors.  Molecules can have all kinds of shapes, from spherical to long and skinny.  Say, Eddie, do your kids play with Legos?”

“Geez, yes.  My feet find blocks all over the house.  Only thing worse is glitter.”

“You can build just about any shape from those rectangular blocks, right?  Pegs on one block plug into holes on other blocks and pretty soon you’ve got a rocket ship or something.  Atoms can work the same way.  Four bonding orbitals pointing out to those pyramid corners, ready to share with whatever comes along.”

“Not just with hydrogen like with that CH4 stuff?”

“Depends on the atom, but in general, yeah.  Except for the outermost columns of the Periodic Table, most of the elements in the upper rows can be persuaded to share at least one bond with most of the others.  Carbon’s the champ that links with practically everything.”Tetrahedral bonding

“Even carbon?”

“Especially carbon, Vinnie.  Linking to carbon is carbon’s best thing.  It’s even got three and a fraction different ways to do it.  Here’s a sketch.  It boils down to the different ways you can have two tetrahedra match up points.”

“Lemme look at this for a minute… OK, that point-to-point one at the top —”

“It’s called a single bond.”

“Whatever, you’re saying that could be like two –CH3 pieces tied together.”

“Mm-hm.  The –CH3‘s are methyl groups, and with two of them you’ve got ethane.  Or link a methyl to a –CH2CH3 and you’ve got propane, or link it to an –OH to get methyl alcohol.  At least in principle you can pop a methyl onto any other atom or molecule that started off with only one unit of charge in an unshared orbital.”

“So it’s like my daughter’s bead necklace where she can pop it apart and add all different kinds of beads.”

“Exactly, Eddie, except her beads probably have their two links in a straight line.  These atoms support four links at 109° angles to each other.”

“That picture reminds me of one of my kids’ toys that’s like a top spinning on top of another top.  Is there anything that locks the two sides together so they can’t do that?”

“One way is if the two sides are each linked to bulky groups that get in each other’s way.  Hydrogens don’t much.  Scientists have measured methyl group rotation rates above 10 million cycles per second.”

“Hey, I’m still looking over here.  These other diagrams say that the tetrahedron things can link along an edge —”

“That’d be a double bond, Vinnie.”

“Looks to me like those double-bond shapes are locked in.  No rotation there, right?”

“Right.  In fact, rotational stability across a double bond is so strong that different arrangements operate like different compounds.  Switching A\B:C\D to A\B:D\C can be the difference between a useful med and something that’s inert or even toxic.”

“And I suppose when they match up whole triangles that’s a triple bond?”

“You got it.”

“Well, that can’t spin, for sure.”

“Nah, Vinnie, that’s like the atom-in-a-field thing, no difference between x- and y- axes.  Spinning like crazy except you can’t see it.”

“Eddie’s right, Vinnie.  The four atoms in a triple-bond structure are in a line.  The charge of three electron pairs mushes into a barrel-shaped region between the two carbons.”

“All that pent-up charge, I bet it’s reactive as hell.”

“Uh-huh.  With hydrogen atoms at both ends that’s acetylene gas.  Let that stuff touch copper and you get explosive decomposition.”

“So that’s why they say don’t run acetylene through copper tubing or brass fittings.”

“Believe it, Vinnie.  Believe it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

To Bond Or Not To Bond, That Is The Question

Vinnie’s pushing pizza crumbs around his plate, watching them clump together.  “These molecular orbitals gotta be pretty complicated.  How do you even write them down?”

“Combinations.  There’s a bunch of different strategies, but they all go back to Laplace’s spherical harmonics.  Remember, he showed that every possible distribution around a central attractor could be described as a combination of his patterns.  Turn on a field, like from another atom, and you just change what combination is active.  Here’s a sketch of the simplest case, two hydrogen atoms — see how the charge on each one bulges toward the other?  The bulge is a combination of a spherical orbital and a dumbbell one.  The molecular orbitals are combinations of orbitals from both atoms, describing how the charges overlap, or not.”Hydrogen molecule

“What’s that blue in the other direction?”

“Another possible combination.  You can combine atomic orbitals with pluses or minuses.  The difference is that the minus combination will always have an additional node in between.  Extra nodes mean higher energy, harder to activate. When the molecule’s in the lowest energy state, charge will be between the atoms where that extra node isn’t.”

“So the overlapped charge here is negative, right, and it pulls the two positive nucleusses —”

“Nuclei”

“Whatever, it pulls ’em together.  Why don’t they just merge?”

“Positive-positive repulsion counts, too.  At the equilibrium bond distance, the nuclei repel each other exactly as much as the shared charge pulls them together.”

Eddie’s still hovering by our table.  “You said that there’s this huge number of possible atomic orbitals.  Wouldn’t there be an even huger number of molecular orbitals?”

“Sure.  The trick is in figuring out which of them are lowest-energy and activated and how that relates to the molecule’s configuration.  Keep track of your model’s total energy as you move the atoms about, for instance, and you can predict the equilibrium distance where the energy is a minimum.  In principle you can calculate configuration changes as two molecules approach each other and react.”

“Looks like a lot of work.”

“For sure, Eddie.  Even a handful of atoms has lots of atomic orbitals to keep track of.  That can burn up acres of compute time.”

Vinnie pushes three crumbs into a triangle.  “You got three distances, you can figure their angles.  So you got the whole shape of the thing.”

“Right, but like Eddie said, that’s a lot of computer work.  Chemists had to come up with shortcuts.  As a matter of fact, they had the shortcuts way before the computers came along.”

“They used, like, abacuses?”

“Funny, Vinnie.  No, no math at all.  And it’s why they still show school-kids those Bohr diagrams.”

“Crazy Eights.”

“Eddie, you got games on the brain.  But yeah, eights.  Or better, quartets of pairs.  One thing I’ve not mentioned yet is that even though they’ve got the same charge, electrons are willing to pair up.”

“How come?”

“That’s the thing of it, Vinnie.  There’s a story about Richard Feynman, probably the foremost physicist of the mid-20th Century.  Someone asked him to explain the pairing-up without using math.  Feynman went into his office for a week, came back out and said he couldn’t do it.  The math demands pairing-up, but outside of the math all we can say is experiments show that’s how it works.”

“HAH, that’s the reason for the ‘two charge units per orbital’ rule!”

“Exactly, Eddie.  It’s how charge can collect in that bonding molecular orbital in the first place.  It’s also the reason that helium doesn’t form molecules at all.  Imagine two helium atoms, each with two units of charge.  Suppose they come close to each other like those hydrogens did.  Where would the charge go?”

“OK, you got two units going into that in-between space, ahh, and the other two activating that blue orbital and pulling the two atoms apart.  So that adds up to zero?”

“Uh-huh.  They just bounce off and away.”

“Cool.”

“Hey, I got a question.  Your sketch has a ball orbital combining with a dumbbell.  But they’ve got different node counts, one and two.  Can you mix things from different shells?”

“Sure, Vinnie, if there’s enough energy.  The electron pair-up can release that much.”

“Cool.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • A friend pointed out that I’m doing my best to avoid saying the word “electron.” He’s absolutely right.  At least in this series I’m taking Bohr’s side in his debate with Einstein — electrons in atoms don’t act like little billiard balls, they act like statistical averages, smeared-out ones at that.  It’s closer to reality to talk about where the charge is so that’s how I’m writing it.