SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Chemical Eye on Santa's Love Train
by Preston MacDougall


December 24, 2007
Monday AM

'Twas the night before Monday, and all through the house, not a peripheral was whirring, not even the mouse. Yet there it was, I could hear the refrain over and over again in my head.

People all over the world, join hands
Start a love train, love train
People all over the world, join hands
Join a love train, love train

When the voice became clearer, I realized that it wasn't the O'Jays singing their hit from the summer of '74, it was me! (It's amazing what a little remixing will do when you're dreaming.)

jpg Chemical Eye on Santa's Love Train


Things went from karaoke to concern when the visual effects floated into my dream. While my daughter would be horrified by the thought of me on a new R&B show called "Dancing with the Profs", the setting of my vocal performance was no laughing matter. It looked like Armageddon.

It wasn't clear if the ruined homes were houses, villas or huts. In fact, there could have been some of each since I seemed to be quickly moving from place to place. I kept on moving, not out of fear, but out of frustration - it seemed like nobody was listening. They weren't holding hands anyway.

My singing would get louder, and more earnest, with each town visited. I didn't give up until I woke up. The clock radio came on at 4:55 am, as usual. After some soft music, and the NPR jingle, "Morning Edition" started a little differently. Bombs were going off, one after the other. From the percussive sounds of the explosions, I could tell something was different.

Thanks to media embedment with the military, we are all too familiar with the sound of American artillery - booming drums, from bass to snare. However, on this morning, the sounds coming through the radio, from almost half-way around the world, included something foreign to my ear - clashing cymbals.

As the reporter soon explained, the Turkish army had bombed Kurdish rebel forces in Northern Iraq the day before. That could explain the unfamiliar shock waves of the exploding ordnance - which I thought was chemically interesting, if politically unsettling. But since it was the first I had heard about this military incursion, my dream suddenly became more intriguing (to me, at least).

Another intriguing dream, that is chemically interesting all by itself, is at the heart of the story about August Kekulé and the structure of benzene.

Benzene is a toxic, naturally occurring hydrocarbon that, along with its name, was originally derived from a resin called gum benzoin. Benzoin is also known as frankincense of Java, even though it is not chemically similar to the Middle Eastern frankincense of the first Christmas. They are only related aromatically, and since the 19th century, whenever a chemist talks about an "aromatic compound", the reference is not to its aroma, but rather to its chemical, and often structural, similarity to benzene.

A staple of the petrochemical industry, benzene is the starting point in the industrial syntheses of compounds ranging from oil of wintergreen, which flavors the candy canes enjoyed before a Christmas feast, to the active ingredient in the chemical relief often sought afterward - aspirin. Among its non-civilian roles, benzene is figuratively, and almost literally, "square one" in the large-scale synthesis of high-explosives like tetryl, a molecular cousin of TNT . In a historic sense, benzene is also the starting point of modern organic chemistry.

In 1835, Friedrich Wöhler, who was the first person to synthesize an organic compound from an inanimate source, said "Organic chemistry just now is enough to drive one mad. It gives me the impression of a primeval forest full of the most remarkable things, a monstrous and boundless thicket, with no way of escape, into which one may well dread to enter."

The confusion stemmed from the fact that chemists could not see the atoms that they knew were somehow bonded to one another in molecules. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle where you can't see the pieces, or feel them. You can count pieces, and see if two pieces fit together (react), or not. If they do fit together, how many different ways they do can be counted, and this is essentially what led Kekulé to his structural insight.

Chemists imagined that molecules were like words. Atoms could form chains, just as stringing letters can make a word. Words and molecules can have branched meanings, by adding suffixes or substituting "side-chains" respectively. The chemistry of benzene just didn't fit into this mental picture. Kekulé resolved this dilemma by proposing a hexagonal ring structure for benzene.

He said this idea came to him in a dream, where he saw "atoms gambolling before (his) eyes", "twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes." The rest, as they say, is history. The rest of the story is engagingly told in the book "Chasing the Molecule", by John Buckingham.

You won't see any circular words in that book, or any other. But imagine the letters H and O, alternating and animated, joining hands and looping back to the beginning. That would be a jolly round word.



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Chemical Eye On... Columns by Preston MacDougall

Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska