6 Chemical Reactions That Changed History


[MUSIC]
Physics might show us the universe’s basic
building blocks, and biology lets the universe
understand itself, but chemistry is where
all the fun happens in between.
We have thousands of chemical reactions going
on inside us every second, but it’s the
ones we’ve mastered with our hands, in labs
and workshops and factories and even kitchens,
that have made humans what we are today. A
few chemical technologies have made such an
explosive change in how we live that they
have altered the very trajectory of humanity.
Here’s 6 chemical reactions that changed
history.
Fire was our first foray into chemistry, for
better and for worse.
Whether it’s animal, vegetable or whatever’s
in hot pockets, cooking our food makes it
easier to digest, we get more nutrition for
a lot less work, but there’s a different
bit of chemistry that turns food from simple
nutrition into something fun to eat.
In 1913, a French chemist named Louis Camille
Maillard described the most delicious reaction
I know of. Pretty much everything we cook
contains sugars and amino acids, and when
they react at high temperatures, the result
is… well, hundreds and hundreds of complex
flavor compounds. It’s what browns grilled
hamburgers, puts the crispy crust on pizza,
the golden edges on french fries, the… sorry,
I got a little carried away there.
Anyway, sure, harnessing fire made food more
digestible, but the Maillard reaction made
it more fun to eat, and drink, because really,
where would we be without roasted coffee?
“Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!”
They say sticks and stones can break bones,
but metal does it much better. If your ancestors
didn’t figure out the chemistry of bronze,
they were probably conquered by someone who
did.
The only pure metals that Earth has any good
amount of are copper, gold, silver, and platinum,
but unfortunately they’re all either too
valuable, too heavy, or too soft to make good
pokey sticks with.
Beginning 5 to 6 thousand years ago, people
began alloying, or mixing copper with elements
like tin, to make bronze, a step up in hardness
and durability from pure copper. It was later
replaced by iron in most uses, but bronze
was the beginning of humanity’s heavy metal
stage.
Ya like civilization? I’m a big fan myself,
and one reaction above all others made it
possible.
As the poet John Ciardi put it: “Fermentation
and civilization are inseparable.”
Our ancestors eventually got tired of chasing
dinner and were finally able to put their
roots down by putting some roots down. Domesticating
plants led to a nice orderly system where
a few people grow enough food for everyone,
giving others free time to explore things
like art, advanced government, and even science,
or at least what passed for science at the
time.
But eating raw grain is not our thing, and
what good is that harvest if it’ll be rotten
in a couple weeks
By harnessing fermentation, and converting
sugars into acids, alcohol, and gas our ancestors
let tiny creatures they had no idea even existed
turn fruit, vegetables, grain, and even milk
into forms that were tastier and lasted longer.
You know what’s also nice? Drinkable water.
But for most of human history, drinking from
the wrong stream or well could get you the
last stomach ache you’d ever have. Fermentation
and its antimicrobial alcoholic by products
were your friend.
Considering water used to be an actual health
hazard, it’s no surprise that bathing often
wasn’t high on priority lists of the past.
But nobody wants to sit with the smelly kid,
even in ancient Sumeria. Tablets dating from
nearly 4,000 years ago there show formulas
for mixing water, alkali ash, and oil or animal
fat to make soap.
Plant and animal oils are triglycerides, a
glycerol molecule plus three fatty acids.
Break them in with the alkali base, and you
get fatty acid salts, the key ingredient in
soap, because they dissolve both ways. One
end is attracted to water, and the other attracts
greasy nonpolar things, and the resulting
chemical mix is perfect for using water to
pull olive oil stains out of your favorite
toga.
News flash: Computers are a big deal, and
neither cell phones or smart thermostats would
be possible without silicon chips. Silicon
is actually super easy to find, but to be
used in chips it has to be super pure. How
pure? At least nine nines pure. But that’s
not even the hard part.
Pure solid silicon is a mass of billions of
separate crystals. It looks cool, but everywhere
two crystals meet is a place where semiconductor
magic can’t happen. The Czochralski process
makes that mess chip-worthy. The silicon is
remelted, and a single tiny crystal is lowered
in and slowly drawn out. This first crystalline
seed aligns the growing solid mass in a single,
perfect crystal of silicon, ready to be sliced
and diced and put to good use.
Everything that’s alive needs nitrogen in
order to build the most basic bits of life
like amino acids and DNA. But for most of
life’s history, converting nitrogen to biologically
useful forms could only be done by bacteria
in soil, they pull gas from the air and convert
it to building blocks like ammonia and nitrates.
That was until 1909, when German chemist Fritz
Haber, with the help of a couple friends,
figured out how to do it on our own. The Haber-Bosch
process converts nitrogen gas and hydrogen
gas, two simple ingredients, to make ammonia,
which we can then turn into an N-finite list
of useful stuff.
So why is this #1? Fertilizer. For the first
time, farmers didn’t have to rely on crop
rotation or shovel what the family cow provided
‘em to get nitrogen. Inexpensive chemical
fertilizers let many people grow abundant
food for the first time ever. The world grew
so much food, in fact, that the global population
has more than quadrupled since this chemical
revolution. We make 450 million tons of nitrogen
fertilizer this way every year, a full 1 to
2 percent of all the energy we use goes to
this process.
Of course salad bars and cereal aren’t the
only thing that we make with industrial nitrogen.
Nitrates are necessary ingredients in making
explosives, and the Haber process allowed
the nations involved in WWI and II to unleash
destruction on scales never seen before.
But whether it was the battlefield or the
breakfast table that really motivated Haber
to harness nitrogen from air, one explosion
definitely won out over the other, and it’s
just one delicious bit of chemistry that feeds
our brains every day.
Now if you enjoyed these Fine reactions, I
know we skipped over a lot of important historical
chemical wonders, so let us know in the comments
what you think changed humanity more than
any other reaction.
Stay curious.

100 Replies to “6 Chemical Reactions That Changed History”

  1. CIVILIZATION is the greatest game ever created by humans, agreed.
    Sorry just had to get that out there.
    Ummmm continue please. 😁

  2. These are the building blocks of life, they can create or destroy: Thats why we named getting along with someone on a an explosive or creative way Chemistry.

  3. Everything discussed here is undoubtedly important and influential, but your definition of "chemical reaction" is tenuous at best. Alloying and the Czochralski process, as I understand them, can't be considered chemical reactions by any stretch of the imagination, since one is essentially "dissolving" one metal in another, and the other is a process of crystal growth.

  4. To all those writing about this and that not being a chemical reaction: all chemical reactions have physical processes at their core. So in the end it is all physics hahaha

  5. Birth control pill is destroying the family,the family is the building block of society, no family=no society

  6. Gunpowder should've been on that list. As both a tool for warfare and as a propellant, it very definitely changed the course of human history…..

  7. Wait… bronze is just an alloy, so really just a solution and not a chemical reaction. Fermentation is a biological process, and the czokralsky process is a physical one. These aren't chemical reactions.

  8. Nobody thinks about the fact that our poop and pee is a very efficient and concentrated nutrient. 10 acres+ can easily be fertilized by you alone if used right

  9. hello, please review my translation for this video in Arabic. it is my native language and i translated it so i can play this video for my class. Thank you!

  10. Nuclear fission. It caused the most gruesome destruction and fear for the end of humanity.

    But, in the end, big serious nations are not waging wars among each other anymore exactly because nukes.

  11. Fischer-Trops reaction along with ammonia production are to blame or praise for the world we know today

  12. Lol the Have Bosh Process allows us to feed more people and also gives us better explosives she kill ourselfs with.

  13. I believe human beings are the only members of the animal kingdom with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Go us!

  14. A normal conversation
    https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/threelly-ai-for-youtube/dfohlnjmjiipcppekkbhbabjbnikkibo

  15. Hands down the Haber process. First learned about it in High School. Made much of the 'roar' in the 'roaring 20s' possible. Got folks off of the farm as you didn't need as many people to work the land (the overall efficiency went through the roof) and made food a lot cheaper. So you could purchase illicit booze instead of oatmeal. The down side is that human population has and is exploding and because food is so very cheap nowadays, farmers and rancher can and do insist on governmental subsidies as the said foodstuffs are so very cheap — little or no real profit. Just smoke and mirrors.

  16. A generally nice video. But I have to take issue. Google (and therefore it must be right :0) describes a chemical reaction as: "a process that involves rearrangement of the molecular or ionic structure of a substance, as distinct from a change in physical form or a nuclear reaction." IMHO this doesn't apply to alloying, because the original metals and subsequent alloy don't have a molecular structure, just a repeating structure of atoms bound by non-local electrons in a conduction level. And certainly recrystallization of silicon doesn't fit this discription either.

  17. 3:47 Tablets dating from nearly 4.000 years ago show that, would you believe it, bathing WAS pretty high on the priority list.

  18. It's ok to speak properly: 1.56: 'If your ancesters hadn't figured out the chemistry of bronze they probably would have been conquered by someone who had.' It is such bad English that I had to switch it off.

  19. Glass. Glass is the most important. It's the foundation of chemistry. It can hold nearly every chemical, it's extremely durable, and it's transparent, so you're able to fully observe chemicals and chemical reactions inside of it from top to bottom. It's a necessity. Without glass we'd be sitting in straw and stone huts. The mixing of melted quartz crystal with lead was the single most important chemical reaction in history.

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