Thursday, August 20, 2009

What a Beautifully Complex World We Live in

It never ceases to amaze me just how complex our physical world is. As I learn about the chemistry of soap making, I'm reminded of that again. The basic elements of the physical universe are simple. Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen, etc. Basic atomic building blocks that make up everything we can see (and everything we can't.) Combine them in different ways, in differing amounts and you get vastly different chemicals with a nearly infinite range of properties. Two chemicals with nearly identical molecular makeups, with just one subtle shift, can behave vastly differently.

And what I find more beautiful and encouraging than the processes themselves is the fact that we humans, puny little denizens of a forgotten rock, orbiting one sun out a billion billion suns, understands them. We've managed, really only in the last 250 years or so, to work out the most hidden of physical processes. At least on a macro-level, our understanding of how the universe works is fairly complete. It's tested, verifiable and re-creatable. It's an amazing accomplishment, and its effects on modern life are readily apparent.

Take soap making for example. Soap was likely happened upon by accident thousands of years ago during temple sacrifices to one god or another. As rain washed the fats and ashes from the burnt offerings into rivers, the water, fats and alkaline from the ash (the constituent elements of soap making) reacted to create a soap film on the river which then washed down to where people were cleaning clothes. People noticed that when they cleaned clothes using water tainted with this film, clothes cleaned up better. Eventually they put two and two together and began making soap intentionally.

But it was hit or miss, and batches of soap could fail for a number of reasons. There was no way to know how strong the alkaline (lye) solution was for each batch. Nor could anyone tell reliably if there was any other chemicals entering the reaction that shouldn't be there. Thermometers for monitoring temperature are a modern invention. So most of the factors that dictate the quality of soap were totally unmeasurable. Soap, as a result, was often harsh and irritating, and sometimes dangerous.

Today we have such a deep understanding of the process that not a single chemical property goes unnoticed. We know the saturation levels of different fats. Their molecular weights, and how that affects the alkaline reaction. We can precisely measure the amount of the alkaline sodium hydroxide that goes into our lye solution. We know exactly, on a molecular level how much alkaline is necessary to fully saponify (convert fats to soap) a certain weight and density of fats and oils. There so much more I won't go into. It's exciting stuff, though, trust me.

How I didn't end up a chemistry major is beyond me. I think I just realized how important and interesting it is too late in life.

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