Do You Speak Chemistry ?


I recently saw this article about chemical linguistics in Chemistry World and it really resonated with me. The idea of chemistry as a language is something that is not addressed when we begin teaching but every chemistry teacher witnesses it on a daily basis when students look at us in utter confusion when we ask them a ‘simple’ question – it is as if we are speaking a foreign language. Professor Gordin identifies symbols and equations as our words and sentences and although we have an infinite number of formulae we can’t give just any combination just as words in a sentence have to make sense.

There is a systematic nature to teaching and learning chemistry – think atomic structure, periodicity, homologous series to name a few. This is reflected in learning a language, with the systematic learning of vocabulary and grammar allowing the construction of a sentence which one day may lead to fluency. So what can we learn from language teaching – the younger the child is the easier it is to learn a language so why do we not expose our children to chemistry at a younger age – get periodic tables on the walls in primary schools, start singing the periodic table song … Maybe then we can begin to help our students translate the wonders of our chemical world.

Sweet Smell of Chemistry

imageOh the sweet smell of the summer holidays and as I’m heading to the south of France I feel it only right to mention the town of Grasse (I really am determined to visit it this year) . Grasse is the birthplace of the perfume industry and is known as the world’s perfume capital. There are still a few perfume houses present in Grasse including Molinard and Fragonard – just to give you an idea of the size of the perfume industry the total sales volume in 2010 was $22 billon.   So where does chemistry fit in to the perfume industry I hear you ask ?
We only have to start with ester chemistry ( most chemistry students meet esters GCSE/AS), just look at the back of shower gels, shampoo …. and look for the chemical ending in -oate – that’s an ester right there. Esters are volatile chemicals that have pleasant smells, for example pentyl ethanoate smells of pears and methyl butanoate smells of pineapples. Now a lot of the expensive perfumes contain chemicals found naturally ( pound shop perfume will probably have chemicals made in the lab) and there is one very interesting chemical that is only found in the most expensive musk based perfumes – Ambergris. Now where do you happen to find this chemical, not in some sweet smelling flower but in whale puke ! Before you laugh apparently a dog walker found a 6lb lump on morecambe beach believed to be worth up to £100,000. Chemically ambergris contains a mixture of chemicals including alkaloids, acids and the chemical ambrein similar to cholesterol. I’ve put a link in if you wish to find out a bit more, I’ve only just touched the surface of perfume chemistry so definitely one for another post !


Chemical of the Week 1 – Fluorine

fluorineOne of my posts will be chemical of the week – the good news is that I’m never going to run out of material for this one, we’ve 118 elements before we even start combining them ! I thought I’d start of with one of my favourites – that nasty little blighter fluorine ! No, it’s not found in your toothpaste (that’s fluoride) – what a difference one electron makes. Oh come on, you’ve got to love chemistry -it’s life or death ( ok unless you have toothpaste addiction). Fluorine stands proud at the top of Group 7 with a symbol that represents the shortened form of a bad word so what’s so bad about fluorine – well the fact is with seven valence electrons it really wants that final one electron badly and it’s going to do whatever it takes to get it (we meet it at A2 as a powerful oxidising agent – electrode potential of +2.87 V).

The good news for us is that you don’t find it languishing in the chemical store because it never hangs around having snagged an electron from anything in sight – that’s why it’s found in compounds not its elemental state. Back in 1813 Davy announced its existence but it wasn’t until 1886 that it was isolated with lots of injuries and deaths along the way. Henri Moissan received the 1906 Nobel Prize for this achievement.

So let’s get to the good stuff with this bad boy – fluorine is used in the production of uranium hexafluoride which is involved in reprocessing nuclear fuel (maybe not so bad I’m a nuclear fuel fan more of that later ) but also in the preparation of nuclear weapons. Natural uranium only contains 0.72% of the radioactive isotope U-235. When uranium metal reacts with fluorine, the gas uranium hexafluoride is produced which then means the radioactive U-235 content can be increased using gas centrifugation. So it looks like not only would exposure to fluorine gas on its own be enough to kill you (all it takes is to expose a poor rat to 400ppm for 25 mins) but it can be found doing a merry dance with radioactive uranium too !

If you want to find out more about fluorine here’s a link to molecule of the month (fantastic website)

Well hello !

Ok, let’s go ! This is my first post so I better introduce myself and explain the idea behind this blog. I’ve been a chemistry teacher now for 12 years – I know chemistry, who would actually choose to teach this subject ! Well, that’s what I want this blog to be about – the absolute joy of this subject, the awe it can leave you in and the fear that if you don’t do your job properly another generation will not get it ( how many chemistry teachers have sat at a parents meeting to the hushed opening line ‘ I just never understood chemistry’ as if it was an incurable genetic condition )

So how am I going to structure this journey – I am a full time teacher so I plan to blog two/three times a week and I’m going to see this as my homework. It’s going to make me read more, search out interesting facts and share some of the bits and pieces I’ve picked up on the way.

Who is this blog for – well there is the question ! For me first of all to have a forum to share my love of chemistry, for anyone sitting in a class struggling to see why chemistry is relevant, to other teachers ( I’ll try to link things to the curriculum where I can) and for anyone who wishes to take the journey – remember old chemists never die they just fail to react !

I love a good quote so I’ll leave you with one from the great Nobel prize winning chemist Linus Pauling ‘ every aspect of the world today – even politics and international relations – is made of chemistry’