Okay, I’m going to try something a little different for this week’s episode of Sciency Words.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Harry Potter novels for a long time now. Learning new and interesting scientific terms, as we do here on Sciency Words, can feel a little like learning new magical spells. Sometimes scientific terms even sound a little like the kinds of spells they might teach at Hogwarts.
So today, we’re going to discuss the magical art of molecular dissociation, and we’re going to learn three spells which can cause the dissociation of molecules to occur. In other words, we’re going to learn three ways to break molecules apart. Ready?
Photolysis is one of the very first “magical spells” I leanred, and I think it’s a really good one to know about. “Photo” comes from the Greek word for light, so photolysis is the breaking of chemical bonds using light.
Typically this is done using higher energy wavelengths of light, like the Sun’s ultraviolet rays. As an artist, it’s important for me to know how to cast shield charms against photolysis, because photolysis can (and will) destroy the chemical pigments in my art work, causing the colors to fade.
As you might have guessed, electrolysis is when you break chemical bonds with electricity. You may have assumed astronauts are muggles. You can be forgiven for that assumption, but astronauts definitely know how to perform at least this much magic.
And in the not-so-distant future, space explorers on the Moon and Mars and out in the asteroid belt will probably use electrolysis to split water molecules into hydrogen (useful as rocket fuel) and oxygen (useful for breathing and also as rocket fuel).
“Pyro” means fire, so pyrolysis is the breaking of chemical bonds using heat. This is probably the most common and most obvious of these molecular dissociation spells—what do you think Bunsen burners are for?—but for some reason I don’t see this term being used very often.
In fact the first time I ever saw the word in print was in this paper about the Curiosity rover on Mars. I guess Mars rovers have magical powers too, because Curiosity cast pyrolysis on a weird sample it had collected in order to figure out what the sample was made of. Turned out it was made of complex organic compounds, the kind of compounds that may (or may not) be associated with Martian life.
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Of course there are still so many more scientific terms… I mean magical spells to learn. I’m hoping I’ll find another of these molecular dissociation spells that fits the photolysis, electrolysis, pyrolysis pattern. If I do, I promise to draw someone in Slytherin colors performing the spell.