Sunday, June 5, 2011


In this case I'm not talking about people. I'm actually talking about chemistry. Radicals often get a bad name because they can be destructive in the body. That's because they are highly reactive, and the resultant compounds of a radical reaction are often highly reactive as well.

Here's the idea. Electrons like to be in pairs. When they're not in pairs then they are unhappy. It's like some people I knew who raised a llama. They had to buy a goat to keep the llama company or the llama would go a little crazy. Electrons are like llamas and every llama needs a goat (or another llama). Radicals are compounds with an unpaired electron, and so are usually unstable. What do they do? They take a goat from a different llama to keep them company. But with 2 llamas and one goat, you're still left with a lonely Andean camelid. Do you see where this is going? When a radical reacts with a normal compound it forms a new radical which will likely be very reactive. The only way to stop a radical is to pair it with another radical. In the body this means that radicals just keep breaking whatever they're breaking over and over. Complete llama chaos. But radical reactions are also essential to our society.

Quick fact about radicals that you probably didn't know: Oxygen is (usually) a radical (actually it's a relatively stable diradical). This is what make combustion possible. That's right, things burn because of radicals. Remember how a radical just keeps reacting over and over? That's why a fire is self perpetuating once it gets started.

That same self-perpetuating nature also helps make many of the plastics we use. Because radicals just keep reacting, they can form huge chains of molecules that will harden and become solid. In fact, that's the way (most) paint "dries." When we say paint dries, it's a misnomer. If paint were just drying, then water or oil would wash it off (which it does with water colors). What paint actually does is react with our dear friend oxygen the diradical. It forms a huge polymer which thickens and hardens it. That's why when your kid throws their glass of water around and splashes the wall the paint just stays there.

So basically, I think radicals are amazing. I'm grateful that we live in a world where we've learned to use them. Chemistry is for cool kids. And llamas are for cool kids too.

1 comment:

  1. I'll just turn this one over to Russ and wait for something like "yummy bread" or "cute kid" that is more up my avenue of understanding. :)