Tuesday, 29 November 2011

DECEMBER 2nd [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 2nd: Benzene

When you are fully immersed in the frippery of the festive period, you will probably notice a lot of persistent themes, like loops of tinsel, wreaths of holly, toys, halos on fairies/angels, cheap trinkets, an abundance of sweet things, big red trucks, and an emphasis on harmony and sharing despite all possible evidence to the contrary.

Taking all this into account, is there anything scientific that can represent all of this? You could ask yourself that (which would be a weird coincidence as I'm sure I'm the first to do so), and you could search high and low, and you'd eventually conclude that you can't see anything that would fit this description. And you'd be right. You can't see it, but it's out there, in lots of places.

I speak of the molecule, Benzene. Too small to see with the human eye given that it's a molecule, but persistent, pervasive and working constantly all year round to provide us with many things, like Father Christmas in a way, apart from the 'too small to see' thing. You can't see Santa as he's not actually there.

So, Benzene. Most famous of the aromatic hydrocarbons (based on the fact that it's the only one I know of, but it's more like the basis for them all), Benzene is a surprisingly christmassy molecule, even more so than yuletideum, which loses points for not existing outside this sentence.
Benzene is a basic petrochemical, found in large quantities in crude oil. And crude oil is used to make petrol, which is essential for powering the Coca Cola trucks, and Christmas can't start without them, for some unfathomable reason. Benzene is actually the precursor molecule for a lot of plastics, which end up in your toys, cracker presents, or the cheap glasses you drink from at yet another desperate festive house party. It is also a precursor to many solvents, so you may also have benzene to thank if you need something to dissolve the superglue from your fingers at Christmas, after the traditional 'accidentally-stepping-on-the-ridculously-flimsy-but-stupidly-expensive-self-assembly-toy' procedure.

Benzene is actually very sweet smelling, hence the 'aromatic' name. A lot of things are sweet at Christmas, after all, 'tis the season to be diabetic (I'm paraphrasing but I think the classic cliché is something like that). It is colourless, sweet smelling, and flammable, so if push came to shove, you could use it as an instant brandy butter substitute. Just pour it on your Christmas pud, light a match, and off it goes, cheerfully flaming away and smelling delicious. Why doesn't everybody do that?

Probably because benzene is highly carcinogenic. So, you know, don't do that.
But this is all superficial stuff, surface level, 'materialistic' if you will. What about the true meaning of Christmas? Harmony, peace, sharing, all that stuff. 

Well it seems the structure of benzene is quite an intriguing one, that had many scientists puzzled for a long time. It's a hydrocarbon, a molecule made up of, as the name suggests, hydrogen and carbon. And carbon is a greedy atom. In the simplest terms possible, each carbon atom has 4 available 'bonds' , and hydrogen has just the one, like little tiny Tim had legs. Carbon can bind with up to 4 Hydrogen atoms (CH4 a.k.a Methane), but chemists very early on realised that benzene is 6 Carbon atoms bonded to 6 hydrogen atoms. That's a lot of unaccounted-for bonds. How? Well it was eventually discovered that benzene is aring, like a holly wreath or halo, where all the usually greedy carbon atoms all join 'hands', make do with one hydrogen atom each, and the remaining bonds are shared between all the carbons, constantly swapping them around like some nanoscopic version of pass the parcel.

So there you have it. The molecule benzene clearly represents the festive season. It's a symbol of when typical greed and self interest are replaced by sharing and unity, coming together as one in a harmonious circle of bonding which, with prolonged exposure, will cause serious illness and eventual death.

Which is just like Christmas, when you think about it.

Twitter: @garwboy


1 comment:

John Stabler said...

Call me old-school, but benzene is my favourite aromatic compound.

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