Below is the second of three installments in my “Chemistry for Art Folks” series, a subsidiary of your usual Art+Science posts here at the mnartists blog. The first, “Chemistry is David Bowie,” is here. If you like what you see, pass it on. So that we all may learn and, in learning, be free.
Let’s start this week’s metaphor about chemistry with another metaphor, because we’re feeling brazen.
What is it about feats of great physical prowess that so impresses us? From the high-wire walker to the human cannonball, the gymnast to the ski jumper, it’s not sheer strength that keeps them teetering on the right side of disaster. There’s something else. Ask any guru — from the old-school Buddhist to new-age craze variety, experts in money or fitness or relationships — and they’ll all likely offer something that boils down to this: Balance.
So it is with chemistry. It’s like riding a bike.
Last week, we rocked out to the fact that everything is a chemical and that, therefore, everything that happens is or involves a chemical reaction. When you think of a chemical reaction, I bet you think of those wacky chemistry experiments they show you at school assemblies*- and, hell yes, those are awesome. But you can add to that list almost anything that happens ever. A chemical reaction is just a change, a balanced change where the most basic elements (literally) are still there, before and after, albeit in a different order.
Remember this diagram from chemistry class?
What you’re looking at is the breakdown of water into its constituent parts, but that doesn’t matter. It could be anything – any chemical, any reaction. What matters here is that there’s a before and an after. The arrow in between, that’s the catalyst for change (energy of some sort, in this case an electric current – but, again, that doesn’t matter). The shape configurations you see before are different from those coming after, but you’ll notice that the atoms, the components, are all still there. Same atoms, same amount. That’s because according to the laws of nature (i.e. particle physics, chemistry, et al) any chemical reaction, no matter how violent, will wind up …balanced. You get the same before and after, rearranged.
Just as important to the balance of the atoms’ number, though, is the fact that they are configured differently. The chemical that comes before will not be the same as that which arrives, post-rearrangement, after. Gosh, no, because if that were the case, nothing would ever actually happen.
If we humans could achieve such perfect balance, we would feel the same in front of a Powerpoint presentation as we do in our Barcaloungers, sure, but what fun would that be?
Think of chemical change like a Rothko. Is it symmetrical? No. Balanced? Yes.
* Please note: Some of the experiments featured in the linked video might be better characterized as magnetic experiments, which are also great and also have to do with atoms (and also magnetic chemistry is a thing, which is cool and great).