When you learn a new language you need to start with the fundamentals. For the world around us, the fundamentals are energy. Everything happening around us is relying on energy in some form. Different fields of science study energy in different ways and with different terminology (Vulcan word for Energy: Tepul). However, there is always an underlying force involved moving towards a lower, more stable energy state.

Atoms react to form molecules, because the resulting molecule has a lower energy state. Molecules react with each other to form more stable, lower energy compounds. The structure of a crystal is defined by the shape that reflects the lowest energy orientation of its molecules. A river takes a route that requires the least effort to overcome the forces of gravity and friction.

To change that quest towards a lower energy state requires the addition of some energy. An everyday chemistry example that you may be familiar with, is the reaction that occurs when you add vinegar (dilute acetic acid – weak acid) to baking soda (sodium bicarbonate – a weak base). These two molecules react to form sodium acetate (the salt of acetic acid), water, and carbon dioxide (gas). If you have ever tried this reaction, you know how fast the carbon dioxide gas is released…which is an indication that the end products are moving to a lower, more stable energy state.

Children may know this reaction as the fun “volcano” experiment. But it is this energetic fizzing caused by the release of the carbon dioxide gas, while the two reactants (acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate) move to a lower energy state that can be used to good advantage in our everyday lives to help unclog drains and clean surfaces such as that dirty Post-Thanksgiving kitchen oven.

Different forms of energy also play a role in other types of chemical reactions. If you want to make two substances react that would not normally do so at room temperature, you have to add some kind energy such as: light, pressure, heat, motion, etc. In other words, you need to move the chemicals into a more energetic state to get over their “energy of activation”, and then the reaction will happen. Parents who are trying to wake up their teenagers for school are likely to be quite familiar with this concept. To get that teenager moving in the morning, it is often necessary to turn on the lights, make a bunch of noise, or even resort to adding a bit of heat (e.g. “get out of bed now!).

In some cases where the “energy of activation” for two substances is particularly high, it may be necessary to use a catalyst (a substance that increases the rate of reaction without undergoing a permanent chemical change itself). Examples of chemical catalysts are carbon and platinum, which help bring molecules closer together so it is easier for them to react. (It’s rather like a bribe for that sleepy-head teenager…a conditional promise to buy a much wanted game or cellphone would undoubtedly get them out of bed and off to school quickly, thus overcoming their “energy of activation”).

One of nature’s wonders is that chemical reactions can happen at body temperatures that would not normally happen on the lab bench without adding a lot of heat. Many of the chemical reactions happening in your body, without you even thinking about them, are only possible because of enzymes – biological catalysts. You don’t think about it, but your body is doing hundreds of chemical reactions simultaneously just to give you enough energy to get through the day.

But further explanations are best left to another day, when I have more energy.

“Dif-tor heh smusma”

–Judith Lockwood

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