[I suppose I haven't been writing for a while now.]
Success is not quite difficult to attain if your target is clearly defined. If you're a chemist, it's even simpler. And you needn't be a marksman either to have a clear shot; any thing at all will do. It is not particularly elusive to the common eye, nor is it extremely rare or inconvenient to isolate; rather, like elements to the early chemists of the eighteenth century, these hidden gems are found right underneath our feet and requiring only a few simple procedures to detect. With an open flame and some moderately shapely containers of glass available from any local artisan's shop, the necessary equipment was easily obtained and just as easily put to use. But the pre-requisite to all these things was that one have a good idea of what exactly they were doing to begin, which ultimately varies considerably for someone dealing with previously unknown substances. Helium, the lightest of the sometimes provokingly inert noble gases, was first identified on the sun by an amateur astronomer. Phosphorous, a reactive non-metal, originated from the bucketfuls of urine which one German merchant painstakingly filtered before then producing a couple meagre grams (he did dabble in alchemy, however, and his unhealthy interest for this otherwise offensive material may have been actually cultivated because of its resemblance to gold, in terms of color ― but this we will save for the history books). For the longest time, especially following the unfortunate execution of the great French scientist Lavoisier, the chemical world was static. But immediately after this was almost a small revolution of sorts. In the fifty years that followed, there was basically a new element being discovered every two years; so many independent researchers arrived at the same results, in fact, that many historians now argue as to who exactly should deserve the credit. There were also other previously-thought elements that were later proven not to be, including lime (calcium oxide), magnesia (magnesium oxide), and caloric (heat energy, which was once thought by scientists to be a material thing but later revoked from its position on the yet-to-be invented periodic table of that time). Those of you who had the fortune of being in semester one science with Mr. Lin would have been quite familiar with the lab experiments that he organised for us ― at least, during the first unit of chemistry, where these sorts of things were actually relevant to the course. Our first one examined the physical and chemical properties of some otherwise ordinary substances, including sucrose (sugar), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), calcium carbonate (chalk), calcium sulphate (gypsum) and sodium chloride (table salt; it's really interesting how unfamiliar their names can be when replaced with their technical terms). The catch was, however, that all of these materials were more or less identical in appearance; they were all white solids, odourless and with a grainy texture that was rough to the touch. So then we exposed them to a variety of other trials in order to uncover their identities, using water and dilute hydrochloric acid. Needless to say, the results were more then a little interesting. And it is still a real shame that Mr. Lin is leaving the school by the end of this year.
So now we are beginning to get the sense that chemistry, among other things, is no longer the dated skeleton in the closet that it used to be ― with delusional alchemists meddling in their cellars and in their uncommonly obsessive quest for gold, immortality, and fame.
But when you begin to read old chemistry books and start trusting their words too much, unusual things can still happen. On June the 11th, I got into a small disagreement with my classmates over the value of blackboard chalk as a calcium supplement, which was brought up in geography. My point was the mineral source was irrelevant to its function, which was to basically preserve bodily health and combat osteoporosis. Their point was that the whole scheme was insane and that it shouldn't be done. Ever eager to see myself vindicated, I suddenly recalled an old lecture I once heard of where an university professor speaking of the possibility of eating (literally eating) chalk to combat osteoporosis. In any case, my peers were not impressed; someone mentioned that if I was actually serious, I ought to demonstrate myself. What did not occur to me at that time, however, was the possibility that this may have been a tongue-in-cheek remark never expected to deserve any considerable attention. "Okee" (if I remember correctly) was the blunt reply and in response I promptly passed the inconspicuous thing down the throat with about a litre of water to boot. I felt no adverse effect physically speaking, although the emotional ramifications five to ten minutes after were certainly much harder to dispel. It is one of those moments in life when one begins to cradle their aching head and slowly say to themselves while swaying in a chair "OH GOD, WHY?" For unusual situations like this one, I've obviously had much more than my own fair share of experience in life. Nevertheless, I was still trying to make a point about subtle chemistry, albeit barbarically and in a manner so arresting that it probably startled people more so than anything remotely close to communicating an idea. At least I tried. Do I still get a consolation prize for that?
Of course, I would object by saying that there is nothing wrong with doing this, technically speaking, since blackboard chalk is completely safe. Yes, people touch it now and then, but so is the very atmosphere that we breathe. People draw it internally into their bodies and have it make direct contact with their soft lung tissues; others, however, do the same with their intestines instead, as is quite the reality in our unfortunate case of flatus. He who eats and lives and metabolises his foods must break wind. She who eats and lives and metabolises her foods must also do the same eventually. I am not making any disgusting generalisation: I am merely stating a very matter-of-fact reality that everyone knows and makes a conscious effort to evade. Yet even so I should still curtail my words. As Shakespeare dully notes in a Midsummer Night's Dream, it is after all "a fool's prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak."
It may perhaps come as a surprise for some to learn that most blackboard chalks now aren't actually made of true chalk (like how the "lead" of a pencil does not contain any traces of the metal whatsoever). Traditionally, they were made of chalk ― calcium carbonate (the same substance that gives calcium supplement pills their rough, powdery texture) ― although modern manufacturers generally prefer to use gypsum instead (which they compress into hardened sticks). Both of these are similar in that they contain calcium as their principle ingredient of interest. Calcium: the builder of strong bones and great nemesis of osteoporosis. Those of you who seem convinced I am going to die might like (or not like ― it depends on how much you like me as a person, of which even I am a little concerned about) to know that gypsum is not known to have any adverse health effects if ingested; often, most of the problems associated with this chemical are those relating to the respiratory tract, in case any one is unfortunate enough to somehow inhale the substance in massive quantities (upon which the insoluble mineral then beings to form deposits within the lungs, an event which is perhaps not entirely unheard of in an industrial environment ― sometimes its powdery nature can irritate the gastrointestinal tract, but that is only if it is eaten by the hundreds of grams). In its natural form, gypsum is a hydrate and thus must be first deprived of its excess moisture before becoming suitable for commercial use. The evaporation process typically removes up to 70 percent of the water, leaving behind a grainy, soft residue not unlike the blackboard chalk that we are usually familiar with. Gypsum is often used as a coagulant in tofu and other soy products, of which is the major source of dietary calcium for many East Asian countries (I myself can attest that the Chinese have never quite enjoyed the antics of cheese or milk; for this reason, there is virtually no dish in the entire country that makes any use of diary products). In construction, it is mixed with mortar to form cement, and in agriculture it is combined with the soil to improve its nutrient content. The English use gypsum to produce mead (an alcoholic beverage produced by the fermentation of honey), and interior designers for the making of drywall. If combined with an appropriate amount of water, gypsum also thickens rather quickly into a viscous, mouldable paste (plaster of Paris). This sloppy colloid is usually found in art, dentistry, cosmetics and some forms of light manufacturing, where producing casts are necessary. What an interesting substance indeed! As most of us have moved away from mining the mineral directly, much of it now is therefore synthesized by factories. The act itself, however, makes no difference.
An average adult male of North American origin ― 1.8 meters in height, and weighing roughly 170 pounds (in other words, someone similar to me) ― requires 1 to 1.5 grams of calcium per day; the vast majority of people, however, usually fail to meet this requirement. Modern blackboard chalk, which is basically a bar of dried plaster, contains mostly nothing but gypsum; chemical additives are irrelevant and therefore unnecessary unless one intends to furnish coloured chalk (in which case some dyes are added). Calcium sulphate, with the chemical formula CaSO4 (there are also supposed to be two water molecules, hence the "hydrate" part of the name, although here it's been omitted), is roughly thirty percent calcium by mass. The sample that I had the misfortune of ― um, eating, for lack of a better term (I can't say try to mask everything in jargon and say "ingested" all time) ― was roughly one to two grams in mass; perhaps three at most, if we were to be a little exaggerative. Overall, that amounts to about 500-600 mg of elemental calcium in total, which is actually less than half of what I was supposed to have for that day. Even with a glass of milk in the afternoon (which contains only 300 mg apiece), my body's quota has been unmet. Combined with an additional 100mg from eating leafy (stir-fried) greens that dinner, the scale still hardly tips at 1g alone. So in reality, my claim about not needing any more calcium for another month is unfounded. It is a wonder that my bones haven't yet been reduced to the strength of uncooked bacon strips! Perhaps there are other unseen, hidden sources that keep my life just barely above the threshold of physical possibility. And because most people simply don't get enough as I've said before, all of that leaves a really insurmountable gap within our diet. This is why calcium supplements are a profitable business.
But in all honesty, I need to stop doing these crazy stunts, especially given all the harmful substances that one could create with otherwise homely appliances and materials. I consider myself lucky to have just ended here, content. The average kitchen is literally a cauldron of chemistry; a laboratory in the making, if you know how to manipulate the materials at hand. And in reality, it is all an extraordinarily simple thing: a nine-year-old could perform these experiments if given the proper instructions, some of which have a tendency of producing unpleasant consequences. By combing chlorinated bleach with drain cleaner or some other sort of reasonably strong acid (both of which are household products), it is possible to furnish rather dangerous quantities of chlorine gas as a by-product. Those who are decent with history will instantly recognise that this was the same substance employed in chemical warfare during WWI. Fritz Haber, the German scientist who pioneered the use of poison gas on the modern battlefield, was largely responsible for the extent of these attacks. Apparently, his wife (a chemist herself) became so distraught with her husband's work that she later committed suicide in protest, several days after Haber directed the first such offensive with these new weapons. On April the 22nd, 1915, the German army sent over 168 tonnes of chlorine gas rolling across no-man's land. The effect was immediate, and scores of French soldiers collapsed almost immediately.
Now we return again with our concoction of Drano and bleach. I was actually tempted to do this until realizing that the resulting products would be both a) extremely hazardous not matter what and b) liable to cause severe injury even with full protection. You could experiment with it yourself. Here, however, I am only saying this tongue-in-cheek, and under no circumstance should anyone seriously go about meddling with chemicals at home ― take one breath of the noxious yellow-green gas, if adequate protection is not ensured, and your lung tissues will be instantly scarred to nothingness (just a bucketful of the Drano-bleach mixture will give off enough gas to cause unconsciousness and death, if no immediate medical assistance is administered). Chlorine is deadly at concentrations of 1000 parts per million, which was about the amount that Germany used at Ypres in the First World War (although many argue that this is excessive and actually much more than was needed to kill). Even at concentrations of 30 parts per million, the chemical is still potent enough to inflict severe coughing fits and stinging chest pains for about a week (I would know because of one incident earlier this year with the DMCI swim team, where everyone suffered a host of quite inconvenient annoyances as a result of training in what seemed to be an improperly chlorinated pool). So already we can get a clear sense of the risks that are present here. At the very least, if you are not careful, there is going to be some form of permanent disability for sure. This I am not going to pull off. I've had enough of chemistry of this year. And though it is also possible to manufacture mustard gas at home with nothing but glass jars and rubber pipes, I certainly wouldn't recommend that either. That is unless, of course, you intend to re-enact All Quiet on the Western Front passed out on the floor of your own washroom, half-dead from suffocation and extensive blistering. Needless to say, the resulting injury is going to hurt more than a little bit. The sulphur mustards, to which mustard gas belongs to, are capable of causing second to third-degree burns in high concentrations. Their compounds are highly mutagenic, and often induces cancer in their survivors.
One British nurse commented, on the victims of mustard gas: "They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonising because usually the other cases do not complain, even with the worst wounds, but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out."
Survivor of a mustard gas attack: notice the large blisters and lesions developing along the arms, neck, and armpit regions. His injury is considered to be fairly mild, in comparison to what could have happened. Mustard gas is a vesicant and destroys whatever tissue that it touches, including the lining of the lungs and mouth (if they are inhaled). Some soldiers have even died from suffocation due to blisters forming in their throats, which later grow so large that they completely obstruct the airway. On a toxicity scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being totally harmless (i.e. water) and 10 being near instantaneous death (i.e. prussic acid), mustard gas would be ranked at around a 7.
Soon, however, the novelty of poison gases began to fade as allied troops started to deploy their own chemical weapons. Primitive gas masks were also issued, which significantly reduced the number of fatalities in future gas attacks. A cloud of chemicals carried by the wind is capable of only moving at the speed of a brisk walk, which gives would-be victims more than enough time to prepare if they see the threat coming. Overall, serious injury occurred in only 5% of all soldiers subject to gassing (2% deaths plus 3% whom of which suffered permanent disability rendering them unfit for military service). As the war went on, there was the development of phosgene, lewisite, and many other variations of the original mustard gas. Nerve and blood agents were also created by German scientists just before the Second World War, which the Nazis put to considerable use in their concentration camps. The most infamous of these was Zyklon B, a pesticide at first, which is today often seen as a symbol of the holocaust.
I don't have much more to say. I've started off on a light tone, but still the dirty side of chemistry still remains stark naked nonetheless. From the books I've seen and the failed experiments I've tried ― many of which never materialized beyond just a casual product of my (infrequent) daydreams ― I almost get the impression that the science is more often than not exceedingly mundane. Between many cycles of repeated testing and reference, chemistry is all in all hardly the sleek, elegant field that some would otherwise hope for (quite unlike physics, to be honest, where far more things are able to be expressed mathematically ― in chemistry it is impossible to precisely determine the motion of electrons and the behaviour of large molecules, at least with our current technical skill: the first one is actually undoable but the second one may not necessarily be). I would never know what my peers think of it. But does it matter?