Adventures in Ethics and Science

As we head into the Science Spring Showdown Sweet Sixteen, it seemed prudent to turn to some experts for their predictions on the two remaining games in the chemistry region, Acid vs. d-orbitals and Fossil fuels vs. Erlenmeyer flask. (Of course, we won’t soon forget the exciting first and second round games that brought these four teams to the Sweet Sixteen.)

Here’s what some members of the chemical cognoscenti have to say:

Acid vs. d-orbitals:
While professing not really to understand the American basketballesque nature of the tournament, Propter Doc was willing to call this one as follows:

d-orbitals for sure! With d-orbitals being able to adopt one of five possible configurations, the gang of acids don’t stand a chance. Every time they get near, the d-orbitals just take them on board and flash a new and showy colour. The d-orbitals are (as they proved in the last match) true showmen and wow the crowd with their flashy colours. By the time that hydrofluoric acid drifts over to the challange the d-orbitals will have arranged themselves into some beautifully inert combination of electrons. The acids fall for the same trick that sublimation did, indicating that despite great corrosive power, they are all muscle and no finesse.

Milo at Chemical Musings predicts a win for acid, owing to the power of the Bronsted-Lowry line-up. Click the link to read the complete commentary and partake of the cool graphics.

Derek Lowe isn’t convinced this is such an easy match to call:

“Acid” is a ubiquitous concept, with a lot of exposure outside the field, so it looks strong at first. d-orbitals, on the other hand, are only discussed by chemists and physicists (and sometimes reluctantly at that). Acid would be favored going in. . .

But the cognoscenti realize that there are plenty of different kinds of acids – Lewis, Bronsted, etc., and that many of these can be dealt with in other terms. For example, you could always talk about the basicity of the corresponding counterions, which would give you an acidity ranking without ever using the word “acid”. pH probably would have been a stronger contender from that conference, but they must have choked in their tournament.

As for d-orbital, despite the lack of name recognition, they’re very important indeed once you start to work your way down the periodic table. These have to be invoked to explain all kinds of things, from the behavior of metal catalysts to why there probably aren’t silicon life forms like in that old Star Trek episode. d-orbital wins, and the smart money cashes in.

Two commentators predict a d-orbital victory, one sees Acid triumphant. This should be a thrilling match to watch.

* * * * *
Fossil fuels vs. Erlenmeyer flask:

Noting that British fans will better recognize Erlenmeyer as “conical flask”, Propter Doc anticipates a losing battle for our glassy gladiator:

Fossil fuels win- the glass can’t take the (gas) pressure. Perhaps the Erlenmeyers are looking a little too chipped around the rim to deal with the onslaught of the fossil fuels. First suffering an undignified soaking in oil, the natural gas hurls coal chunks, just adding to the damage. Even bringing on the smaller Erlenmeyer flasks to impart a more nimble profile fails and fossil fuels will rampage on, unchecked.

Derek Lowe concurs:

The outcome here is easier to determine. Erlenmeyer flasks are the symbols of chemistry in all kinds of cheap clip art and stock photography, especially when they’re filled with colorful solutions. And they’re useful things; I wouldn’t even want to count how many of them I’ve used (and washed) over the years.

But fossil fuels – well, the number of times I (and everyone else) have used those totally blow the Erlenmeyer numbers away. They get a bad rap these days, what with all the pious stuff about carbon offsets, but hey: for now and for some time to come, fossil fuels are the only way we’re going to be able to go. It’s not just energy – they’re huge as chemical feedstocks, and I wouldn’t want to think about how many things would disappear from chemical stockroom shelves without them. Fossil fuels win, and it’s not even close.

The call (and pre-game commentary) from Chemical Musings on this game makes it a unanimous prediction of Fossil fuel victory (although one can’t help wondering whether Milo is actually rooting for dinosaurs here). Looks like Erlenmeyer flask goes into the Sweet Sixteen as the underdog.

* * * * *

Propter Doc also made some predictions for possible match-ups going forward from the Sweet Sixteen:

I like d-orbitals against particles, mainly because they are just going to repel or consume the opposition, whirl them around a while and spit them out. Theory is more tricky, because I’m guessing they are adaptable and readily strengthened, so the artillery of acids would errode the ideas better. I’ve never encountered a theory that could stand up to a good strong acid.

No word on whether Thomas Kuhn might be expected to stand up to a good strong acid.

Fossil fuels could easily take photosynthesis on, they’ve got the wisdom of ages; have already withstood tons of pressure and have a refined touch when required

Will the best that chemistry has to offer in this tournament be enough to take the championship back to the stockroom? Stay tuned to find out!


  1. #1 BRC
    March 27, 2007

    Ooh, “owing to the power of the Bronsted-Lowry line-up” — that’s really sharp insight. I’d not given due attention to that power when I picked my brackets earlier on.

  2. #2 MIlo
    March 28, 2007

    Well, I happen to like dinosaurs, for in their wisdom, they gave us crude oil. Let us not forget that T-rex has really small hands as well….