Monday, July 1, 2013

Strong Bonds

To my son Tommy,

NPR recently ran a story about carbon scrubbing the air.  Being curious this sent me on an admittedly topical review of all the science.  My browsing of the internet on this topic brought me all over, from submarines to space stations, from chemistry to botany, from soda lime to activated carbon, and just about everywhere in between.  I was trying to get a grasp on the concepts and challenges on cleaning up the air.

Like the wandering mind of a naive child, I brainstormed that the ultimate scrubbing of CO2 would end up with the by-products of diamonds and oxygen.  I knew this to be most improbable if not impossible and it would be the equivalent of an ancient alchemist trying to change iron to gold.  From a very simplistic point of view, diamonds are made of carbon and if you remove the carbon from carbon dioxide to make a diamond you are left with only oxygen.  It was a much more profitable, but less sweet, fantasy than adding extra carbon and oxygen and sprinkling in some hydrogen to get sugar, which is the other idea I had inspired by a post of a license plate by one of your mom's cousins.  Neither idea is practical but I don't let realities of impossibilities or impracticalities impede my brainstorming and research.  I only let common sense seep in after my exploration and impede implementation.  So I headed off (in an world wide web sense) to learn about soot and graphite and bucky balls and diamonds.

Studying the four allotropes of carbon was interesting.  I learned how structure really changes the value.  If it is amorphous carbon, it is basically dirt and worthless, aka soot.  As you add structure and organize and rearrange, you get more and more value.  Graphite (which is/was used most commonly for a writing object called a pencil in case the pencil has gone the way of the feathered quill and iron gall ink by the time you read this) has strong covalent bonds between carbon atoms on the same layer, but breaks down easy between layers.  They slip easily upon themselves which makes great for leaving carbon behind as you write or for reducing friction in mechanical contraptions but little else.  Fire a high powered laser at graphite and the crystalline structure gets harder and the structural composition shapes up like a soccer ball.  They call those bucky balls.  Take all these carbon atoms and throw them in the center of the earth or even in a lab under high temperature and high pressure and the covalent bond gets even stronger and forms the ever valuable diamond.  The process of creating a diamond from carbon atoms in carbon dioxide is theoretically possible, it would require much more energy and produce so much more carbon dioxide then it would ever remove, but my research wasn't totally fruitless.  Besides being slightly more knowledgeable in a bunch of new aspects, the word covalent bond kept ringing in my head and reminded me of a totally different topic

At mass yesterday, Father talked about contracts and covenants.  A contract is when each party agrees to their duties and responsibilities and if either party fails, the contract is broken and ends.  Many people approach God and marriage and life and all aspects of life with this attitude.  It is the "What do I get out of it?" mentality. Father suggested that a covenant is much more than a contract and is a bond formed that is not based on conditions being met.  The Gospel reading from yesterday warns us that things aren't all smooth sailing and your relationship with God should be a covenant of unconditional love rather than a contract with conditions.  A chord struck with what I was learning about carbon allotropes.  If there is just a contract, if the bond is not strong, your basically in an amorphous state that is best compared to soot.  If you have a better bond but still have some weakness between the layers you could be compared to graphite and when pressed may break down and leave some of yourself behind.  Add some heat, add some pressure, and the bond keeps forming and getting stronger and stronger building on itself and changing from graphite to bucky balls all the way up to until you become that diamond.

I know, I know, you are probably thinking "There goes dad, getting all religious again" but when you grow up you really have to look at your relationships and this can be applied to many aspects of life.  In this country we have one of the highest divorce rates, because people consider marriage a contract and do not strive for the bond like a diamond.  I think nowadays the diamond is associated with the 30th anniversary but it used to be the 60th.  Think of all the heat and pressure in 60 years of marriage to make that diamond.  Think of all the contracts broken and renewed over 60 years but the covenant, the covalent bond, remained and kept getting stronger.  This is what we need to strive for in our lives.  This is the standard we need to apply to our love, our family, our word, and yes our relationship with God.

I know it is a great leap to start off trying to solve an environmental challenge and end up with an epiphany about contracts and covenants, but your father's mind works in weird ways (but of course by the time you read this you will have figured that out).  The best ideas and concepts and solutions often come from unrelated areas.  My mind jumps around from idea to idea working much faster than my ambition or capability of acting or implementing or even investigating all the possibilities.  But rest assured that no matter if I am trying to brainstorm ways to save the environment or comparing covenants and covalent bonds, you are always on my mind and our bond is strong like a diamond.

Sincerely with love from your dad,

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