Christmas preparations are well underway by now, but have you been paying attention to your chemistry? Of course you have! Well, let’s see… (answers at the bottom, this is a low-tech quiz).
Let’s start with an easy one. In the nativity, the three wise men allegedly turned up at the stable with three pressies for little Jesus. But which chemical symbol could represent one of the gifts?
On the topic of chemical symbols, which christmassy word can you make out of these elements?
carbon, radium, carbon (again), potassium, erbium, sulfur
It doesn’t look like snow is very likely in most of England this year, but we can dream. And while we’re dreaming: why do snowflakes always have six sides?
a) because water has three atoms and they join up to make six.
b) it’s usually something do with hydrogen bonding.
c) they don’t, it’s a myth.
Where would you be most likely to find this molecule at Christmas?
a) In the Christmas cookies.
b) In the festive stilton.
c) In the Christmas turkey.
Mmm Christmas cookies! But which other chemical substance is often added to cakes and biscuits to help them rise?
a) sodium carbonate.
b) sodium hydrogen carbonate.
b) calcium carbonate.
Let’s think about the booze for a moment. Which fact is true about red wine?
a) It tastes significantly different to white wine.
b) Mixing it with other drinks will make your hangover worse.
c) It’s mostly water.
And why are beer bottles usually brown or green?
a) Because these colours block blue light.
b) Because in the old days beer was often a funny colour, and the coloured glass disguised it.
c) Because it’s good luck.
Where would you be most likely to find this molecule at Christmas?
a) In the Christmas cake
b) In the mulled wine
c) In the wrapping paper
Let’s turn to New Year for a moment. What makes party poppers go pop?
b) Silver fulminate
c) Armstrong’s mixture
And who doesn’t love a firework or two? So, which substance is used to produce a blue colour?
a) Sodium bicarbonate
b) Copper chloride
c) Magnesium powder
b) Au – gold
b) – hydrogen bonds form between the oxygen atom of one water molecule and the hydrogen atom of another molecule, causing the molecules to link up into hexagon shapes (pretty much any question to do with water can be answered with ‘something to do with hydrogen bonding’).
a) – in the cookies, it’s cinnamaldehyde, which is the molecule that gives cinnamon it’s flavour and smell.
b) – sodium hydrogen carbonate, also known as sodium bicarbonate, or just ‘bicarb’, breaks down when heated and forms carbon dioxide. It’s the formation of this gas which causes mixtures to rise.
c) – the flavour and colour components of wine only make up about 2% of its volume. If we assume 12% alcohol, then the wine is 86% water. Still, probably best not to glug on a wine bottle after your morning run. On the other two points, there isn’t much evidence that mixing drinks makes hangovers worse (unless, as a result, you drink more alcohol), although some specific types of drinks may cause worse symptoms than others. As for taste, in this paper researchers describe an experiment where they gave 54 tasters white wine dyed red with food colouring. The tasters then went on to describe it as a red wine, suggesting that appearance was much more important than actual taste.
a) – the coloured glass used in beer bottles is there to block blue light. These wavelengths can cause some of the substances in beer to react with each other, resulting in unpleasant flavours.
c) – in the wrapping paper. It’s cellulose, the main constituent of paper.
c) – It’s usually Armstrong’s mixture in party poppers, which is a highly sensitive primary explosive containing red phosphorous (eek). Did I trick any of the chemists out there? Silver fulminate is used in Christmas crackers.
b) – Copper chloride, and also copper oxide and copper carbonate when combined with other things. Sodium bicarbonate produces yellow, and magnesium is white.
It’s December! All that American Black Friday/Cyber Monday nonsense aside, like it or not once the calendar turns to the 12th month it’s time to stop putting off the Christmas shopping. So with that in mind, here are some present ideas for the chemist(s) amongst your family and friends:
This beautiful necklace represents the anandamide molecule. It’s a little bit simplified (can you pick out the nitrogen?) but we can forgive that. After all, to paraphrase the late, great Terry Pratchett (badly, sorry): Taint what anandamide looks like, it’s what anandamide be. This particular neurotransmitter takes its name from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “joy, bliss, delight” and, of course, ‘amide‘ (which means a molecule that contains a nitrogen atom joined up to some other stuff). Anandamide is important for all sorts of functions in the body: it’s linked with pleasurable reward systems (hence the ‘bliss’), ovulation, and may even inhibit breast cancer. Fabulous all round, and it looks very pretty too.
Anandamide necklace, from store.madewith.molecules
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Wee Smell book, available from Amazon.co.uk
Wirdou ‘Be Like Him’ t-shirt Wirdou is an extremely talented graphic artist who specialises in all things geeky and sciency. His work is so good I’ve even forgiven him for choosing a name that’s impossible to type without Google, Amazon, WordPress and every spell checker ever insisting on changing it to ‘weird’ or ‘word’. Anyway, he has many, many fabulous designs that are well-worth browsing through, but if I had to choose one, it’d be this. The non-chemists will probably spot the reference to neon lights. Chemists will enjoy feeling super smart about understanding the octet rule.
Be Like Him t-shirt, from neatoshop.com
periodic table lunch box
No list of chemistry presents would be complete with a periodic table-emblazoned item of some sort, and I’ve plumped for this one. It’s delightfully industrial in appearance, looking like it might just contain a collection of questionable substances rather than sandwiches, so you never know – it may even deter your co-workers from nicking your lunch for fear of accidental poisoning.
Periodic table lunch box, available from amazon.co.uk
science lab beaker pinafore
For the little (future) chemist in your house, here’s a lovely dress from the wonderful Sewing Circus. All their clothes are handmade, unisex, and promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) themes. I can vouch for the fact that, although they are a little more expensive than some children’s clothes, they are excellent quality, wash brilliantly and last really well. Plus, not a bit of sparkly pink in sight. Well worth it.
Science lab beaker pinafore, from sewingcircus.co.uk
Chem C3000 chemistry set
Of course you can wander into a toy shop or even, possibly, a supermarket and pick up a chemistry set for a tenner. But, I’m gong to paraphrase again (hey, why stop once you’ve started): Those aren’t chemistry sets. THIS is a chemistry set. Yes indeed, while those cheap sets consist of little more than baking soda and PVA glue, if that, this one has proper good stuff in it, such as luminol, potassium permanganate, sodium thiosulfate, copper sulfate and ammonium chloride. And something called ‘litmus power’, which I suspect is a typo, but you never know. Yes it’s pricy, but if you have a interested child of pretty much any age at home it would be marvellous. Unlike school experiments, which necessarily have to stop at the end of the lesson, with this you could mix things together for hours. It also comes with a detailed experiment manual, so parents can reassure themselves that the kitchen table will still be (mostly) in once piece at the end of the day. Go on, you know you want to.
The Chem C3000 chemistry set, from sciencemuseumshop.co.uk