Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Unknowns Are All Around Us

I have a reputation among those who have known me for some time as a bit of a nerd (or a geek, depending on whose parlance you're using), and for good reason. I have always been fascinated by the things I do not know. I studied chemistry because I didn't know what happened when you took the smallest thing you could see and cut it in half, which lead to me studying about atoms when I didn't know what happened when you chopped up molecules  and then subatomic particles, and then their constituent parts, and so on. I studied astronomy because I didn't know what stars were made of. I studied physics because I didn't know why hitting the drum louder made a louder noise. I study philosophy because I don't understand how chemical reactions, on any level of complexity, can lead to free will (or at least the illusion thereof). I studied faith because I couldn't understand why people would pray. I studied history because I didn't understand why people said it repeated itself. I studied theoretical mathematics because I didn't understand how you could ever be certain that, in all cases, the square of the hypotenuse on a right-angled triangle would be equal to the sum of the squares of the other sides. I studied computers because I didn't understand how programs of ever-increasing capacity could be resolved into a series of switches being turned on and off. I studied metal-working because I didn't know how you could ever hope to machine things on such fine scales, I studied mechanics because I couldn't understand how you could turn a spring (whose release of energy is constant and rapid) into a clockwork, and I studied cooking because I didn't know why rosemary (which you could never eat by itself) made beef taste so good.

And the general trend in any study, whether casual or immersive, professional or amateur, full-time or night-study, is to reach ever and ever deeper into the field of the unknowns. My reading over the last few weeks has concerned itself largely with the way in which science has derived the shapes of molecules without being able to directly observe them on any visual level.

Every now and then, though, life jumps up and slaps you in the face like you called its mother something uncouth. I was cruising through the internet on a quest to learn a little something or other about orbital mechanics for a game I was playing, and, taking a break, I wound up doing what I often do, which is cruise youtube. There, I stumbled upon a youtube video, again by Thunderf00t, with the rather grandiose claim of having been the first bit of video ever captured of a particular chemical phenomenon.

It's entirely possible he's right, but what was more astounding was what the phenomenon was. He was filming the reaction of one of the alkali metals (lithium, if I recall) with water... something just about every amateur chemist has heard of, and probably seen himself. Unlike me though, he had the advantage of being a highly-trained chemist, and he had come to a realization that the final explosive hurrah of the reaction shouldn't actually happen. This lead him to take more video in a better setup that showed the formation of a large ball of lithium gas, which is responsible for the final explosion.

It's fairly astounding stuff, first to the punch or not. This is a reaction that every high-school "chemist" has seen, and if not them, than certainly their early-university peers. I've seen it so many times that video of the reaction is actually boring now. And yet, here was something that nobody had ever taken the time to document. It's been known for a while that lithium will release that gas when it is being distilled, but nobody ever noticed that it would create that gas in the process of reaction with water. That's significant. Billions of people have seen this reaction take place without realizing there had been an unanswered question.

We are surrounded by thousands of unknowns. Certainly, the more we know the less they happen, but that's what makes the game exciting. I want each and everyone one of you to think of something you don't know, right now, and go learn about it. That's what brains are for, and I believe we wouldn't have them if we weren't supposed to use them.

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