Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Discovery of Tetranitratoxycarbon

Clara Lazen

Kenneth Boehr

Clara and her molecule


Actually, it doesn't exist yet in a physical form because it does not exist in nature, at least not in a stable form on this planet, just like the 20 heaviest chemical elements, such as Einsteinium and Copernicium. But it has been discovered. It's three dimensional structure and composition that is.
For those of us who haven't taken a chemistry class for a while, myself included (I've never taken a chemistry class... I wouldn't have minded if no math was involved, but no one asked me), let's review what a chemical element is.
Wikipedia tells us: "A chemical element is a pure chemical substance consisting of one type of atom distinguished by its atomic number, which is the number of protons in its nucleus. Familiar examples of elements include carbon, oxygen, aluminum, iron, copper, gold, mercury, and lead."
I do remember from science class that elements cannot be broken down into a simpler substance. The atoms that compose the elements can be reduced in particle accelerators and cosmic ray collisions, but that's a whole other matter that we needn't go into at this particular juncture.
Maybe later.
Hydrogen and helium are the most abundant elements in the universe, as they are the lightest and simplest of all the elements. They are the two main ingredients of our Sun, which fuels our solar system by converting hydrogen into helium through the process of nuclear fusion (every second, 600 million tons of hydrogen atoms are converted into helium atoms, which creates energy which makes the Sun shine). Without this fusion we wouldn't be here. We also wouldn't be here if our star did not also have traces of the heavier elements such as iron and carbon, which our bodies need to function, let alone the oxygen and nitrogen that we breath. These elements were formed in the explosions of other stars long ago called supernovas, and were swept up into gravitational clusters that later formed stars, such as our Sun.
As Dr. Carl Sagan was fond of saying, "We are made of Star Stuff," which is literally true.
I think that's cool. It is a real, physical, quantifiable connection to the cosmos which I find majestically appealing.
And the atoms and molecules that make up our present bodies will one day return to the stars when in about 5 to 6 billion years the Earth is swallowed by our expanding red giant Sun as it runs out of fuel (the Sun will eventually turn into a white dwarf star, and shrink to around the size of the Earth. Perhaps in the distant future this white dwarf will itself be swallowed by another stellar agent and the whole process will begin again, and our atoms will resurface in other exotic, perhaps intelligent beings. All bets are off if we are swallowed by a black hole).
Tetranitratoxycarbon, pronounced tetranitratoxycarbon, which was discovered late last year in Kansas City, Missouri, where my dear late grandmother once lived, is of course a molecule. Our bodies are mostly made up of molecules... a lot of them. More than I'd like to count.
What's a molecule? Glad you asked!
Wikipedia tells us: "A molecule is an electrically neutral group of two or more atoms held together by covalent chemical bonds."
Well, that's clear enough I think. Basically what molecules are are combinations of atoms that form substances with different chemical properties. Water for instance, is made up of molecules, which themselves are made of one atom of oxygen linked chemically (electrically) with two atoms of hydrogen. That's why we sometimes call water H2O. Water has way different properties than either oxygen or hydrogen by themselves.
I'm glad there's lots of water around. We think life itself began in the oceans which are made up largely of water.
And water's good to drink. As a matter of fact I think I'll have some right now. Please excuse me a moment...
...uuuummm that was good. Take a second and have some yourselves dear readers. You'll be glad you did.
Tetranitratoxycarbon is a whole new molecule that has never been seen before. It wasn't discovered in some big secret government facility buried under a mountain somewhere, oh no. It was discovered by Clara Lazen, a ten year old, fifth grader in her science class at Border Star Montessori Elementary School in Kansas City, on the Missouri side of the Missouri River, not the Kansas side.
You see one day her teacher, Kenneth Boehr, assigned Clara's class the task of making three dimensional molecular structures using different colored little spheres that represented various atoms, which could be stuck together with bendable tubes, which represented the covalent bonds between the atoms.
Now as some have suggested, she could have stuck two spheres of hydrogen to one of oxygen, which would have made a three dimensional representation of a water molecule, and her class assignment would have been satisfied. But not our Clara, oh no!
She fooled around with nitrogen atoms as well, and after she got finished, she came up with a stable molecule representation and showed it to her teacher, who had never seen one quite like it.
“I just saw that these go together more,” Clara told the Fox News local affiliate in Kansas City. “Like they fit more together. And they look better. And all the holes have to be filled in for it to be stable.”
Now Mr. Boehr admitted that he was not an expert on molecules. But he knew a computational chemist, Robert Zoellner, at Humboldt State University, here in California. Professor Zoellner received a picture of Clara's molecule via iphone, and could not immediately place it, so he ran it through a molecule data base that he happened to have, being a computational chemist and all, and discovered a very similar chemical structure, that of nitroglycerin. Perhaps you've heard of it.
So little Clara had discovered a new molecular structure resembling the explosive used in dynamite, nitroglycerin. Zoellner named the molecule, wrote of the discovery to be published in the journal of Computational and Theoretical Chemistry (which I happen to subscribe to), with Clara and Boehr listed as co-authors.
Here's a link to the local Fox station's story:
Further studies of tetranitratoxycarbon will be carried out. It appears that the molecule can store energy. It also appears that it may be able to expel energy, like it's cousin nitro. So little Clara may have discovered a brand new form of explosive, which may or may not one day be responsible for the world's demise. We shall see.
The possibility that tetranitratoxycarbon could be utilized by the military seems to appeal to Clara.
“Me and Mr. Boehr were talking about if we sold it we’d split they money,” Clara told Fox News. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I can sell this to the military for money.’”
The immediate result of this exciting discovery is that it has turned an innocent ten year old into a raging warmonger.
But we don't even know yet whether tetranitratoxycarbon can be synthesized in a lab, and if it can what it's actual properties will be. It could turn out to be completely inert and harmless. It may be the secret for curing cancer, as nitroglycerin is used in medicine as a vasodilator.
Heck, it could turn out to be the mythical precursor to Ice-nine for all we know, mentioned by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel, "Cat's Cradle," and in bad Al Pacino movies, and instead of blowing up the Earth it will kill us all by turning all our water, and us, into cold, slushy ice.
We shall see.
Still, the wonderful and heartening idea behind this story is the discovery itself, and by such a young and brilliant young lady who I hope will continue to advance in a career in science, and who may make many more new and exciting discoveries.
Lord knows, with the conservatives constantly wagging war on science (creationism, and the anti-global warmers, etc. The right only likes science when they use their iphones, cars, TVs, and microwaves), our nation will continue to need bright minds like Clara's to lead us into a new generation of those who love the truth.
Wherever it may take us.

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