Dalton’s Atomic Legos

John Dalton… oh he was one crazy cat. A colorblind chemist quaker, what could be cooler than that? He’s most famous for his atomic theory, though he also studied colorblindness (pretty selfish really), the nature of gasses (don’t giggle, it’s rude), and he even recorded the daily weather for 57 years straight (https://cdn.meme.am/instances/19233870.jpg).

You’ve probably heard his name before. Most likely in the very first session of an introductory chemistry course. You know, when you’re still excited about the semester, you’re actually still taking notes, and you have the naivety to think, ‘I can totally handle this class, no problem!’.

The reason why Dalton’s Atomic Theory is such a big deal is because it was the postulate that really got the field of nuclear chemistry going. Sure, Democritus came up with a half-assed theory in 400 something BC, but by the time Dalton was recording rainfall 2,300 years later, the concept of the atom had mostly been forgotten.

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Democritus was sassy af

After Dalton’s theory, hundreds of scientists proceeded to play with cathode tubes (they didn’t have Netflix back then), JJ Thomson discovered electrons (fun fact, he originally named them corpuscles, I think it’s cooler, but whatever) and created the plum pudding model of the atom (plum pudding has no plums in it, btw). Rutherford then serendipitously discovered protons and the nucleus, and Bohr postulated that electrons move around the nucleus in a circular fashion. And then quantum theory. Okay, yeah, I skipped some stuff there, but we’re talking about Dalton here.

And then quantum theory. Okay, yeah, I skipped some stuff there, but we’re talking about Dalton here.

Okay, yeah, I skipped some stuff there, but we’re talking about Dalton here.

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But seriously, someone name their band The Corpuscles.

Keep in mind that John Dalton essentially pulled this theory out of his ass, with very little experimental context compared to today’s standards. And yet, almost all of it still holds true.

Here is his theory in a plum shell (no it’s not an expression, but it is now):

1) All matter is made of atoms. Atoms are indivisible and indestructible.

2) All atoms of a given element are identical in mass and properties.

3) Compounds are formed by a combination of two or more different kinds of atoms.

4) A chemical reaction is a rearrangement of atoms.

Now let’s break this down with legos. Here is our little lego John Dalton. I know, I couldn’t get the hair just right, but everything else is spot on.

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1) All matter is made of atoms. Atoms are indivisible and indestructible.

The greeks actually came up with the concept of the atom, or “atomos” (the prefix “a” means “not” and the word “tomos” means cut), with a simple thought experiment. You cut an apple in half. You then cut the half in half. So on and so on, until you can cut no more, this uncuttable unit would be the atom. This apple analogy actually works well to understand this part of the theory (assuming it’s granny smith, if it’s red delicious it falls apart).

Imagine you are playing with Lego Dalton (I have every confidence that this sentence has never been used in all of human history). You take apart his lower body, his upper body, his head and his hair, you now have four parts, you cannot take apart Dalton any further. Unless you pull out a hammer, in this analogy, that would an atomic bomb. Which is why this part of the theory isn’t entirely true anymore.

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But look how cool lego Batman looks in front of explosions.

2) All atoms of a given element are identical in mass and properties.

An element is an object made entirely of the same atoms. So in this case, lego Dalton, is not an element (for spoilers scroll down). However, three lower body lego pieces are an element, three upper body pieces, and so on.

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3) Compounds are formed by a combination of two or more different kinds of atoms.

The opposite of an element is a compound. This is an object made of different types of atoms, lego Dalton is a compound. So is random chemistry mermaid!

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The funny thing is, when people immediately thing of element, they may think of water, fire, air, and earth. However, these are not elements, they’re compounds! Water is a mixture of oxygen atoms and hydrogen atoms. Fire is oxygen, nitrogen, carbon. Air is mostly nitrogen and oxygen. And earth? Oxygen, aluminum, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium atoms just to name a few.

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LIES, ALL LIES!

4) A chemical reaction is a rearrangement of atoms.

Let’s say we wanted to make a chemical reaction between John Dalton and chemistry mermaid (okay folks, let’s keep this PG). Each compound is made of four atoms (hair, head, upper body, and lower body). When these atoms are exchanged, moved, and rearranged a chemical reaction has occurred.

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Chemical rxn #1

In this case, the chemical reaction has had no net change as there are still four elements on the left and four on the right.

However, you could take two head atoms and stack them, making an element, and take the remaining hair (x2), lower body (x2), and upper body (x2) atoms and create a compound. This chemical reaction (chemical rxn #2) would result in a compound (made up of multiple atom types) and an element (made up of 2 head atoms).

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Chemical rxn #2

Another chemical reaction could give you two compounds but in a different arrangement. With one compound containing one head atom and one hair atom, and the other compound with the remaining head (x1), hair (x1), upper body (x2), and lower body (x2).

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Chemical rxn #3

As you can probably tell there are endless combinations of chemical reactions. Actually, there are 40,320 to be exact.

See parents? Everything makes more sense with legos. Go buy your children hundreds of dollars of them if you want them to pass chemistry.

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Bonus:

Dalton’s super secret diary in which he drew his postulations about atoms… and where he wrote his vampire romance novel.640px-Daltons_symbols.gif

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