The Oil Bath

A blog mainly about chemistry and driving trucks, describing how the world looks from the bench of a lab and how the world looks from the seat of a cab.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Harry Potter Chemistry

One of my pet peeves is how most people think chemists spend their day. The general conception most people have, fed by popular culture, is that we mix chemicals together in a flask of some sort. Then we hold it up in the air, letting the light catch it in a dramatic manner, and shout "Eureka" when we've gotten what we want.

The best example that I can think of in popular culture isn't explicitly about chemists at all, but it's really the same thing. I refer to the Harry Potter books, Potions class. The eager students, under Snape's baleful gaze, will put one thing after another into their cauldrons. They'll heat them, cool them, stir them clockwise or counterclockwise, and at the end they'll have a cauldron full of the desired Potion. All ready to use.

But really, it doesn't usually take a lot of time to put the chemicals together. This is often pretty easy. Then you have to wait and wait and wait. But I've got other stuff to do that takes up a lot of my time anyway, so I don't really mind.

What I spend most of my time doing is purification. After a reaction finished, almost always you don't just get something useful appearing in the flask. Usually you've got a mixture of product and a whole lot of other things that you don't want. Then you can waste hours and days purifying the one thing that you want out of this mixture of things that you don't want. There are many ways to purify the product - but a lot of the time the chemist spends the whole day packing a glass tube full of silica gel or something like that, pouring his mixture into the top of the thing, and just pouring solvents into the top and waiting for different things to come out of the bottom. One of which is, hopefully, the product that the chemist wants.

You always see chemists mixing chemicals on TV. You never see them hopping up on a stepladder to pour stuff into the top of a giant tube, and then filling up lots of test tubes from the bottom of it. But that's really the usual timesink.

Figuring out that you've actually gotten what you want is even more work. There's lots of machines involved. Just holding it up in the air does not usually help.

It would be nice to just mix chemicals until we get what we want. Too bad that real life isn't more like Harry Potter.


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