The Real Chemistry of Valentine’s Day

There’s more chemistry to Valentine’s Day than just biochemistry.  Trust me, there are a lot of fun things you can do on Valentine’s Day to show that special someone you care, and you’re kind of smart too.  Here is just a list of a few classic Valentine’s Day projects for chemists:

1. The Mercury Beating Heart Demonstration

This is a very cool demonstration using very simple chemistry.  One thing you should keep in mind, however; although the toxicity of mercury is a bit overblown in the public circle, it is still not safe to handle with bare hands.

To perform the demonstration, simply place a drop of mercury into a watch glass.  Pour sulfuric acid on the drop, covering it.  The exact amount of sulfuric acid you use isn’t really important.  Add a small amount of potassium permangante/dichlorate, or hydrogen peroxide.  When you are ready to begin the demonstration, simply approach the mercury with the tip of a piece of iron wire or even just a conventional nail.  The mercury will start to beat when the iron wire is close tot he mercury.  This reaction will last for 15-20 seconds.  Just as easy as that, you’ve simulated a beating heart for your loved one.

2.  Create a Borax Crystal Heart.

This demonstration is even simpler than the mercury beating heart.  All that you need for this is a strip of pipe cleaner, water, and borax.  Borax is rather easy to come by these days.  You can buy it pretty much anywhere in some form.  Borax is also called sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate.  It is a key ingredient in many cleaning products.  To create a borax crystal heart, simply shape your strip of pipe cleaner in the shape of a heart, leaving a small stem at the bottom of the form.  Bring about 10 cups of water to a boil and stir in the borax until the borax is no longer dissolving into the water.  Place the water into a container – the size of the container really doesn’t matter so long as it’s large enough to submerge the heart shape without the pipe cleaner itself touching the sides or bottom.  Next, do just that.  Submerge the heart into the same container without the shape touching the sides or bottom.  Leaving a stem at the bottom of the heart allows you to hang the pipe cleaner inside the container, which will give you your best results.  Leave the pipe cleaner submerged overnight and in the morning, you will find a heart covered in beautiful borax crystals.  Note: If you wish, you can add food coloring to this solution, adding after the heart is submerged.  However, for best results using color, you may want to use a colored pipe cleaner.

3.  The Pink Beaker

This is also known as The Hot and Cold Valentine Solution.

All you need to do is add a couple of drops of phenolphthalein indicator and one drop of concentrated ammonia into about 500 ml of water inside of a beaker.  A test tube also works for this demonstration.  Simply heat up the pink solution using a hot plate or a burner flame.  Remove the now-colorless liquid from heat, and watch the clear solution gradually turn pink again.  This happens because when you heat this solution, a shift is caused in the equilibrium between the ionized ammonium hydroxide and the unionized ammonia.  This change in pH makes the indicator turn completely colorless.  While the solution is cooling, this effect is reversed, causing the solution to return to its original color.

Note: There is a chance you will not experience a color change if there is too much ammonia in the solution.  If this is the case, simply dilute further with a little bit of water and try again. For added effect, purchase a heart-shaped pitcher from any Ikea store, and transfer the solution into the pitcher while it’s still hot.  Watch the solution turn pink again inside of the heart.

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I hope you enjoyed these simple ideas for Valentine’s Day.  There are tons of other fun things to do on this day that don’t involve science…well, so directly anyway.  And more than anything, I must say that the biochemistry and neurochemistry of Valentine’s Day is the most important part.  Personally, I’ve chosen to stimulate the pleasure receptors in my fiancee’s brain tonight by building her a TARDIS storage box.  Yeah, I’m a lucky guy to have a woman who would enjoy something like that.

Have a splendid day, and remember to plan for Public Science Day on the 17th of this month, in which the possibilities of experimental demonstrations are unlimited.

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