Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Chemistry, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Noble gases: They are SO not into you.
“Noble gases: They are SO not into you.”

When you hear the word noble, it conjures many thoughts. French aristocracy. Those starch-shirted tea-sippers on PBS. “Barnes and”. But what is it exactly that these “noble” things have in common?

For starters, they really don’t like dealing with people. They’re not into sharing or helping or customer service. Or customers. Or anyone they consider peasants. Which is all of us.

But this notion of noble isn’t limited to the Antoinettes and booksellers and creepy Crawleys of the world. It’s also pretty much the way noble gases behave: hands-off, aloof and rarely intermingling with the common folk. Not while anyone is looking, anyway.

In atomic terms, this means that atoms of the noble gas elements — helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon — almost never form molecular bonds with other elements.

(And unlike some “noble” families, they don’t often bond with their own kind, either.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m lookin’ at you, Habsburgs, ya interbreeding jaw-jutters.)

The reason noble gases don’t readily form molecules is that their outermost electron shells are “full”. Atomic bonding — like all bonding, according to Bert and Ernie — is about sharing. In this case, sharing of one or more electrons.

But atoms are built with “shells” of certain sizes, and the outer one is where the interatomic electron love is most likely to happen. If that outer shell already has as many electrons as it can hold, like a dozen eggs in a carton, then it’s got no room for a spare shared from another atom. And having that full shell gives the atom stability — so it’s in no hurry to loan an electron out and break up the set, either.

All the noble gas elements have atoms in this exact situation. They’ve got everything they need, and a place for everything they have. They don’t want to talk to you, nor to some chatty hydrogen ion. And especially not some clingy bonder like carbon. Carbon atoms make up to four atomic bonds at the same time.

That would never do for a noble gas. Noble gases probably hire atoms to make their dirty atomic bonds for them. Indeed. Quite. I say.

Of course, being “noble” gives the noble gases a set of unique properties. (Which, happily for them, don’t include hereditary haemophilia and chronic haughtiness.) First — as if to prove how little they want to do with you — all noble gases are colorless, odorless and tasteless. As the name suggests, they’re all also gases at normal temperatures and pressures — helium, in fact, is the only element that can’t be cooled into a solid without also applying pressure. As in, twenty-five atmospheres of pressure. Nobles really are a stubborn lot.

While it is possible — though never easy — to get the noble gases to play nice and bond with other elements, it’s actually their uppity ways that make them most useful. Helium is added to deep-sea scuba air tanks to prevent the bends, since it’s not easily absorbed into tissues. And because it’s inflammable, it’s replaced hydrogen gas for blimp filler since that whole Hindenburg “oopsie” a few decades ago.

Non-reactivity makes noble gases useful in light bulbs, too. Halogen lamps include krypton, incandescent bulbs use argon and neon lights… well. Loners or not, let’s just say Las Vegas wouldn’t be Las Vegas without a helluva lot of noble gas in its signs. And they find use in arc welding, medical and industrial lasers, MRIs, Antarctic ice dating and gas chromatographs, among many other applications.

Which might be the oddest thing of all about these elements. For a bunch of atoms too snooty to mingle with us commoners, noble gases sure do get around.

Image sources: Chemhume (noble gases), Buzzfeed (disapproving dowager), American Museum of Natural History (“holy Hapsburg jaw, Charles II!), Shrimpdaddycocoapuff (noble gas cat)

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· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Tectonic plates: Putting the 'rift' in 'continental drift'.
“Tectonic plates: Putting the ‘rift’ in ‘continental drift’.”

The Earth — or the bits of it we live on, anyway — is like the Kardashians.

(A chilling premise, I know. Feel free to roll around in the fetal position for a bit while that sinks in. I’ll wait — and then I’ll explain.)

The Earth’s surface is made up of independent sheets of planetary crust called “tectonic plates”. Parts of these plates — and some entire plates — lie under the ocean, but there are some rocky bits that manage to peek out above the surface of the waves. Scientists call these bits “land”.

(So does everyone else, obviously. Scientists just like to feel official about things.)

It’s these stretches of land, divided into continents, that share some traits with the Kardashians. So Europe is, I don’t know, Khloe. And South America can be Kim, with her high-Andean-altitude ass. Maybe Kourtney is Greenland, and…

Well, those are all the Kardashians I know, actually. Is Krusty one? Or Katzenjammer? Tito? Like all things Kardashian, it really isn’t important. Assign your land masses however you like.

The key things to know is that there are seven or eight major tectonic plates, depending on whom you ask, and another few dozen minor ones. Hangers-on, if you will. Distant cousins. Papparazzi.

(That’s one, right? I totally remember Papparazzi Kardashian being pulled over by cops for something. It was on all the channels starting with T-M, probably.)

Three hundred million years ago, all the tectonic plates containing land were huddled together like a big happy family in one supercontinent called Pangaea. They stayed together for about one hundred million years — so, slightly more seasons than the Kardashians managed — before finally breaking apart.

(And what’s more, it wasn’t the first time the whole family had come together. Geologists think there were at least four supercontinents mushing together all the land masses throughout prehistory, going all the way back to two billion years ago. It seems reunion specials and reboots have always been in vogue.)

It wasn’t constant in-fighting that drove the tectonic plates in Pangaea apart. Rather, the continents drifted due to geologic, tidal and gravitational forces tugging them into the configuration we know today. But the interactions between those plates as they moved along would be familiar to any Kardashian or reality TV fan. Specifically, there was:

Converging – where two tectonic plates came at each other (bro), one was pushed underneath the other in a sort of intercontinental cat fight. This can create ridges and even mountain ranges (like the Andes), where the “winning” plate is lifted up over the other. In plate tectonics, it’s usually the denser plate that’s thrust down, in a process called subduction. (In reality TV, sadly, the denser you are, the more camera time you’ll probably get.)

Diverging – where two plates drifted away from each other, with one never calling or writing or joining up for mani-pedi spa days any more, a rift would form between them. When it happens under the ocean, new material from under the Earth’s crust will rise and fill in; this is how we get new sea floor. When it happens in the entertainment world, some new bunch of idiots will rush in to plug the void; this is how we get Jersey Shore.

Transforming – sometimes two plates constantly rub and grind against each other — or against Lamar Odom, possibly. This causes friction and instability, and can lead to something called “transform faults” (like the one in San Andreas) where earthquakes frequently arise from all the tectonic jostling. Which is almost certainly less catastrophic than the product of all the Kardashian rubbing and grinding, which is usually more Kardashians.

So that’s the story of tectonic plates. Perhaps not the geologic migration process we wanted, but at this point probably the geologic migration process we deserve. Downton Abbey, it ain’t.

Image sources: Ella-Rose’s Learning Portfolio (tectonic plates), Too Funny Chicks (tug of Kardashians), HefferBrew (rubbing Lamar), Kontrol Girl (template for Pangaean posers)

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