Molecular Monday: When Isomers Attack

As a science fiction writer, I’ve come to believe that chemistry is the most important science for me to research. Chemistry is often defined as “the study of matter and its properties.” It’s hard to tell a story set in our universe without “matter and its properties” getting involved somehow.

However, I do believe there are limits to what I need to know.

What are Isomers?

In the previous Molecular Monday post, I introduced you to the molecule known as octane. Or rather, I introduced you to a molecule known as octane.

Jn20 Octane Isomers
Quiet! You’re all octane.

When you can have multiple versions of the same molecule, the different versions are called isomers. There are 18 isomers of octane (24 if chirality gets involved). Each has eight carbon atoms and eighteen hydrogens, but they’re put together in different shapes.

Isomers can have different freezing points or boiling points, different reactivities, different stabilities…. Professional chemists certainly need to know this. At some point, it may even be relevant for a Sci-Fi story.

An Isomer by Any Other Name…

The story of how octane got its name is quite simple. Unfortunately, naming conventions for the various isomers of octane get complicated. By following the naming guidelines set by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), some of octane’s isomers are officially called:

  • 3-Methylheptane
  • 2,2-Dimethylhexane
  • 3-Ethyl-2-methylpentane
  • 2,2,3,3,-Tetramethylbutane

Now there’s a heck of a lot of information about chemical composition and structure encoded into these names. I can see how these kinds of names are useful… if you know how to decode them.

Which I don’t.

There’s a certain point where I have to remind myself that I am just a science fiction writer; I don’t have to learn everything. Maybe I’ll end up learning this IUPAC code; maybe not. Right now, I think it’s enough for me to know what an isomer is, why isomers matter, and that a well-thought-out naming convention exists (if I ever need it).

And if something like 2,2,4-Trimethylpentane does pop up in one of my stories (or more likely, if I see a name like that during my research), at least I have some idea how to find out what it means.

3 thoughts on “Molecular Monday: When Isomers Attack

  1. Ugh… Reminds me when I was trying to explain isomers to my daughter for her high school chemistry class.

    I read a novel once called “Spock Must Die” written by James Blish, I believe. The premise was that a duplicate Spock was created whose molecules were all optical isomers (mirror images) of the original Spock.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the dangers of doing research is getting so caught up in it that you lose sight of why you started the research in the first place. I know my research into neuroscience long ago passed what most science fiction writers (including hard sci-fi ones) know. I remember reading a writing guide that urged you to develop your plot first, then then do only the research you needed.

    OTOH, a lot of what I’ve learned about the brain has also shown the conceptual holes that often show up in science fiction. I recently read a novel where an AI embeds itself in a character’s brain but without affecting the character’s skills or personality. I’ve learned enough now to know how implausible that is.

    Lately I’ve done some research into interstellar communication. (The only actual research on it is done by SETI and associates.) I’ve gotten a basic gist, and am debating how much more I really need to know.


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