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April 18, 2011 / SONG

Story of Nitrogen, Story-Embedded Science

Movie Hollow Man“Hey, what are you looking at?”

Science, it sounds fascinating and difficult at the same time. Yeah, we ARE fascinated by whole state-of-art outcomes, not from how they works and what’s going on deep down there. Perhaps, this is the reason for Science fiction movie being constructed with fascinating glitches of science. Such as, a real hollow man can’t see anything at all.

But, it is also true that deep inside those headache-inducing principles of science, there still are some theorem that may catch your eyes. And this story, story of Nitrogen, is all about it.

I’m confident that almost everyone knows Nitrogen is quite a common compound in the world, that is abundant in the air. The most common usage of nitrogen gas would be your favourite potato chips, protecting it from being cracked inside the package. So what? Let’s roll.

The story starts with haughty chemical consultant, who’s thinking himself having a superior career than ordinary chemists do, by not undergoing dirty (?) and risky experimental works. Unexpectedly, at the end of his work inspecting problem with lipstick production line, he accepts a request from plant manager  to supply some unpopular chemical for him. Of course the consultant gladly accepted without knowing how to make it, and looked into it later on. The requested chemical was  a strong dye which consists carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and Nitrogen. He found out that most likely starting material was dung (let’s say excrement, since it sound better….) from animals such as chicken or snake, and that’s where his work started to get twisted.

Feerilizer contains NitrogenDifferent forms of nitrogen are totally different things. Even fertiliser contains nitrogen!

Easy there, nitrogen element is totally different form nitrogen gas, component of DNA or zero-calorie sweeteners. What he needed wasn’t excrement itself, but nitrogen in it.

What he tried first was chicken, but it was a real ‘dirty’ task, so he tried to get the one from snake. Eventually, he was scorned at an animal store, being told the excrement of snake was a really expensive material which pharmaceutical companies highly demand. After all, he turns into the common experimental task, what he was thinking himself superior by not doing such thing.

Let’s see how different forms of nitrogen appeared in this story haughty chemist. We all know nitrogen gas, a cheap excrement containing nitrogen, and an expensive source of nitrogen. doesnn’t It sound like a real alchemy huh?

Well, I didn’t laugh with that consultant story, but at least, I could see this:
‘Even a same element can be turned into a totally different thing, depending on its form.’
May be, this was what the author wanted to tell. But excrement stuff is not a bright choice I guess…..

Suggested, you could seek “what is ‘organic chemistry’ and its significance?”

Movie Hollow man, from
Furtilizer, from
The Original Story: Nitrogen – from Penguin Books, The Periodic Table



Leave a Comment
  1. kategap / May 7 2011 11:45 am

    Thank you for your post!
    I agree with you in the fact that one of the messages of the story is how incredible it is that one element is present in such a range of compounds and most of all that nitrogen is nitrogen no matter whether it is in chicken excrements or in a lipstick. However despite the chapter name I don’t think it is the main subject of the story. I think it is mostly about the trials and the pragmatism of being a chemist and about the author’s genuine love for the field.

    The author is excellent at storytelling: despite having a lot of chemical references the story is not at all academic and very easy to read. Science is described in a way set to inspire. For example, a paragraph that I particularly enjoyed, where the author compares the structure of alloxan to the beauty of cathedral’s cupolas. Here again we can see that the author’s is in love with the work he does – chemistry.

    It is a pretty structure isn’t it? It makes you think of something solid, stable, well-linked. In fact it happens also in chemistry as in architecture that “beautiful” edifices, that is, symmetrical and simple, are also the most sturdy: in short, the same thing happens with molecules as with the cupolas of cathedrals of the arches of bridges. by Primo Levi in “The Periodic Table”


    • SONG / May 9 2011 11:21 am

      Oh, I shouldn’t have missed it….
      Well, I was a little bit cloudy either, that the main material of the story is more like carbon-chemistry, rather than nitrogen itself.
      I guess it depends on what we concentrate to: the chemical consultant, or what he was handling.

      Come to think of it, maybe what you said is the reason for him to talk about bit technical stuff. Because I thought the section with chemical structure might be difficult for public.

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