I was having a nice lunch out on Saturday (one of my sparse breaks for the whole summer), and a few guests joined me. I asked Jennifer if she was interested in any kind of science. To my dismay, she said no. So I asked what she did. She told of her ambitions to move from the position of independant house maid, to the more tenable career of real estate. I shared some financial and economic advice, but was still rather depressed at her lack of curiosity. So I tried again. What don’t you understand about science? She responded, “Nothing. I had a chemistry class, but I didn’t understand any of it.”
Ahhhh!!! Here was a simple science I could explain in simple terms. I thought for a moment, about how I could wrap chemistry in a nutshell with all of its nuance. “Do you know what elements are?” I asked?
“They’re like atoms.” She responded.
“Yeeah. So in chemistry, it’s important to try to visualize atoms. Carbon never likes to be alone. It’s a very grabby element. It will grab onto anything around it [a.k.a. reactive, forming bonds, etc]. You know water is made of oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is also very grabby, and that’s why metals rust.”
That’s when it hit me. “BASICALLY, EVERY ATOM WANTS TO BE A NOBLE GAS.” I crumpled a napkin to represent a nucleus, and surrounded it with spoons to represent electrons. A hydrogen atom has only one electron, but there’s a space for another electron to fit into, helium fills in two electrons. It is not grabby at all–it likes to keep to itself. Hydrogen naturally wants to be helium, so it steals an electron from other atoms, and that is how molecules form. Every atom wants to fill it’s empty spaces with electrons, but it can’t find any extra protons to hold itself together in that fashion, so atoms improvise by sharing electrons with one another. That is the basic principle for why all materials behave the way they do.”
She said, “Wow, I wish you were a teacher at my school, then I might have understood it.” Inside smiles.