September 22, 2021

Chemistry Is Weird, Brain Chemistry Is Weirder

Chemistry is really weird if you stop and think about it. The basics from the ground up, those fundamental constituents, protons, neutrons and electrons, have the properties of charge, mass and spin and presumably exist in a solid state at STP (standard temperature and pressure) or otherwise. In other words, they have none of the properties, apart from mass, associated with any of the properties associated with the chemical elements (like being other than a solid, liquid or gas at STP (standard temperature and pressure); having colour;

Given those elementary particles, if you start to pile them up, well charge plus charge equals a greater or lesser overall charge; mass plus mass equals more mass; spin plus spin – well I’m not sure spin is a property that can be added or subtracted.

If it could be so arranged, but we’ll make it so since this is a thought experiment, a baseball-sized collection of electrons or neutrons or protons at STP would obviously have mass, and a lot of electric charge in the case of protons and electrons. But what would the colour be? What would it taste like? What would it smell like? What would it feel like? These are unanswered and probably unanswerable questions.

But assemble these fundamentals in various combinations and all of a sudden you do get all of the elements with their associated colours and tastes and so on. That’s a bit weird for starters.

How many atoms of gold (for example but any other element would do) have to come together or be assembled before you have the properties of gold? It surely has to be more than one atom worth surely.

But even weirder is when you start to combine the various elements with associated properties into molecules that have properties totally unlike the parent elements. You have hydrogen and oxygen as dry gases at STP that make water which is wet and liquid at STP. Silicon is a solid at STP and Carbon is a solid at STP, and Oxygen is a gas at STP, but Carbon Dioxide is a gas at STP whereas Silicon Dioxide (sand) is a solid at STP, yet Carbon and Silicon are like mother and daughter in terms of similarity. Then you have Chlorine, a poisonous yellow gas at STP, and Sodium, which is a solid shiny metal at STP, and volatile enough such that if you swallow any you will really do yourself a very serious mischief. However, Sodium Chloride is just pure table salt and a compound your body requires to survive and thrive!

Carbon isn’t a poison, Oxygen you can breathe, but you’d die in a pure Carbon Dioxide environment, or even in a pure Carbon Monoxide environment.

All of chemistry is deterministic and predictable, both inorganic and organic, with the apparent exception of brain chemistry, which I’ll get to shortly.

You’d think chemistry would be straightforward, but chemistry can act in rather weird, even unpredictable ways. I mean, if you have an atom of Sodium and an atom of Chlorine, you get a straight-forward molecule of table salt (salty). If you have two atoms of Hydrogen and one atom of Oxygen you get, in a straightforward fashion, a molecule of water at STP (wet). Combine Carbon, Oxygen and Hydrogen in a certain way and you get sugar (sweet). Another arrangement can give you chlorophyll (green).

Now how is this weird?
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Well, the basic constituents, protons, electrons and neutrons aren’t salty, wet, sweet or green. Sodium and Chlorine atoms aren’t salty; table salt is salty. Oxygen and Hydrogen atoms aren’t wet at STP; water is wet at STP. Carbon, Oxygen and Hydrogen atoms aren’t sweet; sugar is sweet. The constituent atoms comprising the chlorophyll molecule (Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, Nitrogen and Magnesium) aren’t green; chlorophyll is green.

So how do the properties of saltiness, wetness, sweetness, greenness, arise from those constituents that don’t have those properties? It’s not quite as strange as getting something from nothing or something happening for no reason at all, but nevertheless IMHO something’s screwy somewhere. And enigmas like these all lead back to that most fundamental of all issues – what is reality?

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