Photographs by Nick Mann
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Everything physical is made up of the elements and the infinite variety of molecules they form when they combine with each other. In Molecules, Theodore Gray takes the next step in the story that began with the periodic table in his best-selling book, The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. Here, he explores, through fascinating stories and trademark stunning photography, the most interesting, essential, useful, and beautiful of the millions of chemical structures that make up every material in the world.
Gray begins with an explanation of how atoms bond to form molecules and compounds, as well as the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry. He then goes on to explore the vast array of materials molecules can create, including: soaps and solvents; goops and oils; rocks and ores; ropes and fibers; painkillers and dangerous drugs; sweeteners; perfumes and stink bombs; colors and pigments; and controversial compounds including asbestos, CFCs, and thimerosal.
Big, gorgeous photographs, as well as diagrams of the compounds and their chemical bonds, rendered with never before seen beauty, fill the pages and capture molecules in their various states.
As he did in The Elements, Gray shows us molecules as we've never seen them before. It's the perfect book for his loyal fans who've been eager for more and for anyone fascinated with the mysteries of the material world.
Table of Contents
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THE PERIODIC TABLE IS COMPLETE: We know those hundred or so elements are all we ever need to worry about. But there is no catalog of all the molecules in the universe, and there can't be. There may be only six different chess pieces, but it's out of the question to list all the ways of arranging them on a chess board.
Even putting molecules into logical groups (in order to write a book that at least covers all the categories) is a losing battle. There are almost as many categories of molecules as there are molecules. I take that to mean that I have the freedom to write about only the interesting ones, and the ones that illustrate the deeper connections and broader concepts that unify them all.
If you're looking for a standard presentation of compounds, such as you might find in a chemistry textbook, you'll be disappointed. There is no chapter on acids and bases in this book. I do talk about acids, of course, but in connection with other things that I personally find more fascinating, like soap (which is made by using a strong base to turn a weak acid into a soluble salt that makes oil and water mix).
In that sense this book is more like the one collection of compounds every kid should have: a chemistry set. It's a little of everything, put together not to be complete, but to be interesting. It will teach you something about how the world of chemistry works, and give you a sense of the scope of the subject.
I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it.
A House Built of Elements
ALL PHYSICAL THINGS in the world are made of the elements of the periodic table. I wrote a whole other book about that, and about all the places you can find each of the elements. Sometimes they exist on their own, as in aluminum pans or copper wires. But usually they are found combined with each other in compounds like table salt (which is made of vast arrays of sodium and chlorine atoms in a crystalline grid) or in molecules like sugar (which is made of tightly connected groups of twelve carbon, twenty-two hydrogen, and eleven oxygen atoms).
Molecules and compounds are what this book is all about.
In daily life, we encounter vastly more molecules and compounds than elements (countless thousands vs. dozens) because atoms can connect to each other in so many different ways. Using just hydrogen and carbon, you can make the entire class of compounds called hydrocarbons, which includes oils, greases, solvents, fuels, paraffins, and plastics. Add oxygen to the mix, and you can make carbohydrates including sugars, starches, waxes, fats, painkillers, pigments, more plastics, and a great many other compounds. Add just a few more elements, and you have all the compounds needed to make a living creature, including proteins, enzymes, and the mother of all molecules, DNA.
But what holds these atoms together with such great diversity? And why do I keep saying compounds and molecules: is there a difference?
The Force at the Heart of Chemistry
THE FORCE THAT holds compounds together and drives all of chemistry is the electrostatic force. It's the same force that holds a balloon to the wall after you rub it on your shirt or makes your hair stand on end when you shuffle on the right kind of carpet.
It's easy to start describing this force. Any material can carry an electric charge, which can be either positive or negative. If two things have charges of the same sign, then they repel each other. If they have charges of the opposite sign, then they attract each other. (It's a bit like with magnets, where two north poles or two south poles repel, but a north pole and a south pole attract.)
We know a lot about how this force works—how strong it is, how quickly it weakens with distance, how fast it can be transmitted through space, and so on. These details can be described with great precision and mathematical sophistication. But what the electrostatic force actually is remains a complete and utter mystery.
It's quite marvelous that something so fundamental is fundamentally unknown. But that's not a practical problem, because a description of how the force works, not a true understanding of it, is all that's needed to make creative use of all the ways that atoms can combine with each other.
ATOMS HAVE a small, dense nucleus containing protons and neutrons. The protons have a positive electric charge, and the neutrons have no charge, so overall each nucleus has a positive charge equal to its number of protons.
Surrounding the nucleus are a number of electrons, which have a negative electric charge. Because negative charges are attracted to positive charges, the electrons are held close to the nucleus, and it takes energy to pull them away. We say the electrons are bound to the nucleus by their electric charge.
The negative charge on an electron has exactly the same strength, but opposite sign, as the positive charge on a proton. So when an atom has the same number of electrons and protons, the overall charge on the atom is zero; it is a neutral atom.
There's a name for the number of protons in a nucleus: it's called the atomic number, and it defines which element you are looking at. For example, if you've got an atom with six protons in its nucleus, you have carbon, and you can make graphite or diamond out of it. If you've got eleven protons in each nucleus, you've got sodium, which you can combine with chlorine to make salt or throw in a lake to make an explosion when it reacts with water.
An atom's nucleus determines which element you have, but it's the electrons around the outside that control how that element behaves. Chemistry is really all about the behavior of electrons.
THE ELECTROSTATIC FORCE is what holds electrons and protons together in a single atom, and it's also what holds atoms to each other in compounds and molecules. When an individual atom has exactly the same number of protons and electrons, it has no overall charge, so there's no electrostatic force between it and any other neutral atom. To get them to connect to each other, you have to move the electrons around from one atom to another, creating an electrostatic force between them.
Look again at the atomic diagrams on the previous pages. Notice that some of them (such as neon) have "full" outer shells, while others (such as carbon, sodium, and chlorine) have gaps that indicate missing electrons. Each shell has a fixed number of electrons that it can hold (either two or eight, depending on which layer it is). The inner shells fill up completely, but there may not be enough electrons to completely fill the outermost, or valence, shell. When that shell is not full, you are dealing with an unhappy atom, and you have a golden opportunity to move electrons around.
Atoms are willing to go to great lengths to get a complete shell, even if that means not being electrically neutral anymore. But they do have preferences. Some like to fill in holes with extra electrons, while others choose to shed a few stragglers in their outermost shell. Still others prefer to share electrons with neighbors in a way that allows a single electron to, at least partially, satisfy two atoms at once.
Any time you have two or more atoms connected to each other, it's called a molecule. If there are at least two different kinds of elements in your molecule, then it's also called a compound.
SODIUM AND CHLORINE form ionic bonds because chlorine really wants to acquire an extra electron, and sodium is very happy to be rid of what it considers an excess electron. Other atoms are less strong-willed: rather than gain or lose electrons altogether, they prefer to share electrons with each other. When atoms share one or more electrons, they form covalent bonds.
Covalent bonds allow for complicated structures because, unlike ionic bonds, they are personal; they exist between specific pairs of atoms.
Each kind of atom has a characteristic number of electrons that it likes to share with neighboring atoms. For example, carbon, which is missing four electrons from its outer shell, likes to take a share of four electrons from other atoms so that it can pretend it has a full outer shell of eight. Oxygen likes to take a share of two. Hydrogen is incredibly generous: it has only one electron but is happy to share it with other atoms.
These rules allow atoms to work like LEGO® blocks that snap together in particular ways. And when they do, the result is called a molecule.
- "One of the Best Science Books of 2014"—Wired
- "AP Chem would have been way more fun if textbooks resembled this visually exciting tome."—Entertainment Weekly, "Must List"
- "A masterpiece...Suddenly the physical world makes a lot more sense."—BoingBoing
- "A must-have for anyone of any age or education."—Jamie Hyneman
- On Sale
- Mar 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal