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Survival 101: Chemistry – the Kung Fu of Survival – Lesson 1

Posted by on 2012/04/06

But it’s so hard, and so boring… I promise we’ll get back to the fun stuff soon, like how to melt iron with your mind and capture rabbits in monofilament snares, how to build a lightsaber in the wild, etc… 

Right, chemistry is a massively complicated discipline, got that; but it’s definitely not boring once you get the basics down; unfortunately, there are a lot of basics to get down. Still, it’s right up there with medicine and engineering when it comes down to surviving versus thriving.

I barely passed high school chemistry, and I’ve had absolutely no call to use it at any point in my professional life, but as I started digging into this survival shit, I realized pretty quickly that anything I really wanted to be able to do on my own beyond the most rudimentary solutions for common problems was going to require at least a fundamental understanding of how things actually worked, and considering that chemical reactions are at the heart of the most crucial survival tools, then it pretty much became a no brainer to start learning about it.

We are going to start from the point of total ignorance, and familiarize ourselves with the basic principles of chemistry so that we can at least begin to see the forest for the chlorophyll factory that it is, rather than just a bunch of trees.

Since the metric system is the language of science, we’re going to start with a basic lesson in metric measurements. This part actually is boring, but chemistry is expressed through precise measurements, and so this is the language we’ll have to learn. We will no doubt be forced to come up with our own arbitrary measurements in the wild, or we’ll be forced to extrapolate them from whatever specific knowledge we have when we enter our survival situation.  I’ll explain that last part at the end of this section.

Basic Prefixes: 
Mega, M, 1,000,000
Kilo, k, 1,000
deci, d, .1
centi, c, .01
milli, m, .001

Standard Measurements
Length is measured in meters, its symbol is m.  So mm is millimeters.
Time is still measured in seconds, we still use the archaic babylonian system for measuring time
Mass is measured in grams, or g,  kg is kilograms
Temperature is measured in a system called Kelvin or K,  capitalization is apparently important.
Volume is measured in Liters, or L, cL is centiliters, which is actually Cubic Meters.
This will come in handy later: An amu is an Atomic Mass Unit, you can’t actually measure it in the wild, but you should know it exists.
There’s more, but I’m already bored.  Lets move on.

Accuracy Vs. Precision:

In chemistry, the difference between accuracy and precision is very important:
Accuracy is when a measurement comes close to the actual value
Precision is the reliability of that measurement to be correct over multiple attempts
Both precision and accuracy are crucial to chemistry.

Mass Vs. Volume Vs. Density

Mass is the measurement of how much material is present
Volume is the measurement of how much space that material takes up
Density is the measurement of how much mass exists within the space taken up by the material
There’s a simple mathematical formula for determining density, which is: Mass divided by Volume.
If something has a mass of 1 gram, and a volume of 1o milliliters, than the result is .1 g/mL or .1 grams per milliliter
This will be important later.

Defining your own system of measurement:  The metric system functions the way it does because the values of the different standard measurements are relevant to one another.  A milliliter is a cubic centimeter. 1mL=1cm3 that means if you were to construct a cube that was 1 centimeter on each side, the volume of that cube would be equal to a milliliter.  If you are stuck in the wilderness, and forced to define your own system of measurement because you don’t have access to any standard measuring tool, you need to make sure that your system of measurement follows all the same rules as the metric system precisely or you will not be able to use this knowledge.

Extrapolating the metric system from known values: This is the recommended method of preparing yourself for a survival situation.  Memorize the exact metric dimensions of everything in your survival kit.  Learn the exact mass and volume of your bullets (most of you actually know the dimensions of your bullets, don’t you) mark your water bottle with exact levels so you can use it to measure volume, mark lengths on your paracord, better yet, throw a plastic metric ruler into your bug out bag.  These measuring tools will hopefully be accurate enough to allow us to further extrapolate other values.  The metric system may seem complicated at first, but it’s actually pretty elegant, and once you learn it, you’ll be increasing your chances of survival. No shit, it’s like learning how to sharpen a knife correctly, or shoot a gun, or learn a martial art.  For all intestine porpoises and gutsy dolphins, this is our martial art, this is the kung fu of survival.

The other basic principle we need to know is the scientific method.  Science literally means knowledge.  The long definition is: systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.  The scientific method is our way of verifying our knowledge. It’s essentially the most rational problem solving tool we have access to.  It’s a tool that we always have with us, that doesn’t take up any space in our pack, and can’t ever be taken away from us, except possibly via head trauma.

The Scientific Method

Step 1: Identify the purpose of the inquiry
example – my fire drill is taking an incredibly long time to produce a usable coal. 
Step 2: Propose a hypothesis
example – the wood I’m using is too soft
Step 3: Devise an experiment to test the hypothesis
example – I’ll try to use 3 different types of wood, Hickory, Pine, Cedar – in order to maximize accuracy, I will make sure that each wood is prepared identically in length, shape, diameter, etc… 
Step 4: Collect Data
example – The hickory spun freely in the socket, but took 11 minutes to produce a workable coal, and tore splinters out of my fireboard
Step 5: Analyze data
example – The hickory might be too hard a wood. 
Step 6: Repeat experiment or Record conclusion
example – The hickory experiment provided us with a measurement, 11 minutes, and damaged our fireboard, we will repeat the experiment with a softer wood and measure the results.

The simplest part of the process is the collect/analyze data step: This is where learning happens, like reading rainbow; Lavar Burton will appear to us and explain what it is we should be taking away from the experiment.  He will say: There are two kinds of data, Qualitative and Quantitative. Quantitative data is all the stuff we can measure: the amount of time we spent turning the spindle before the fire started, the density of the wood, etc… Qualitative data is the stuff we can’t really measure with numbers but is pertinent to the experiment: the hickory was damaging to the fireboard, the coal was loose and burned out before igniting the tinder.

Okay, last part of lesson 1.

What is chemistry exactly and how does it work?

Probably should have started with this, but oh well.  Chemistry is the magic part of science. It’s why your guns shoot bullets, why your fire burns, why food replenishes your energy, why the sun produces light, and one of the reasons why the movie Gigli was so terrible. If you don’t think it’s relevant to survival, you’re limiting yourself to the most basic of survival techniques; think about the air, heat, water, and food you need to stay alive – these are the chemical processes at the root of survival and we should, at the very least, familiarize ourselves with how they work.  With chemistry we can make steel, explosives, electricity, ice cream, and air mattresses.  Of course, we can still survive with stone tools, fire pits, venison jerky, and beds made of leaves, but we don’t have to.

So chemistry, here’s how it works, in a nutshell. Everything in the physical universe is made up of tiny little balls of energy called quarks. The quarks combine to form the constituent parts of an atom, protons, neutrons, and electrons. Atoms are the fundamental part of elements. Each atom has an atomic number, this is number is equal to the number of protons in the atom. When you combine elements, you get compounds.  Elements and compounds are the building blocks of matter. Matter is anything that has mass and takes up space.  So atoms are in everything and when atoms interact with one another, a reaction can take place. This reaction  is the basis of chemistry.

There are some fundamental laws we’ll have to internalize in order to really understand what the fuck is going on in the universe.

An element is a substance that cannot be chemically decomposed into a simpler substance, it’s pretty much already there, eg: Iron, Carbon, Hydrogen
A compound is a substance composed of two or more elements in defined proportions, eg: water (1 molecule consisting of 2 hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom)
A mixture is a material that is composed of more than one element or compound (a bowl of screws and dead ants, air, saltwater)

Beyond the atomic level, matter exists in three states, solid, liquid, and gas. Fuck plasma, it’s not going to do us any good right now.

At the atomic level, the following information will come in handy and should be stored inside your brain somewhere:

A proton is designated as having a mass of 1 amu, and a charge of +1 (positive charge)
A neutron is also designated as having a mass of 1 amu and a charge of 0 (neutral)
An electron is designated as having a mass of 1/1836 amu or roughly .0005 amu and a charge of -1 (negative charge)

You should immediately realize that electrons are super powerful compared to protons, if they have a tiny fraction of the mass but an equally strong charge. Electrons are awesome like that. They’re going to be really important to us.

A bit about atoms: I’m getting this out of the way now, but it won’t be useful until much later.  You can skip down to mixtures if you want, but later lessons will come back to this stuff.

An atom is composed of a nucleus and an orbital field.  The nucleus is where the protons hang out, all bunched together with the neutrons.  The number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus define the atomic mass of the atom. The number of protons is the important part, as that tells us what kind of atom it is.  A hydrogen atom has 1 proton in its nucleus, so it’s atomic number is 1, and it’s the smallest atom. It’s always going to be hydrogen because it has 1 proton, no matter how many neutrons or electrons it has (usually 1). The Electrons hang out in the orbital field, which is divided into levels.

Trust me, this stuff is important.

Okay, so we know from playing around with magnets that Positive and Negative charges attract one another. And we know from being on earth that objects with mass are attracted to each other because of gravity.  We also know that when you tie a rock to a rope and start spinning it around you, that it pulls away from you.  This is all pretty much how an atom works.  The mass of the protons and neutrons keep them stuck together, and the electrons spin around them because they’re tied to the nucleus by tiny little ropes.  If you zoom in on an atom in photoshop, you’ll see that it’s actually Eric Roberts holding a bunch of ropes spinning baseballs around his head.  No actually, you can’t really see the electrons, as they’re not really anywhere. This part is weird, and I promise we won’t descend into quantum mechanics, but electrons don’t actually have an exact location that can be pinpointed in space and time, only through probability, using an abstract tool called a waveform equation, can we predict the probable location of an electron in its orbital.  We don’t need to know anything more than that for now, but…

Practically, what’s happening is the electrons orbit the nucleus of the atom on levels in the orbital field. This field is divided into individual orbitals, that are labeled, in order of strength, as S-Orbtals (lowest strength) followed by p, d, and f-orbitals. If you’re a victim of an education that predates the acceptance of quantum mechanics, then you learned the bohr model of the atom, where electrons orbited the nucleus in fixed patterns, distributed on fixed levels. That model still works for practical purposes, we’re not going to be bushcrafting quantum particles.

A bit about Mixtures:

This is most of the work we’re going to be doing.  Separating and Combining mixtures is something we can physically do with our hands and tools we can make in the field.  Separating mixtures is how we’re going to get usable salt and usable water from sea water, how we’re going to make mayo for our potato salad, and how we’re going to make black powder to explode rocks for fun. Most of our practical chemistry is going to come from making mixtures rather than fundamentally changing the universe.

Separating mixtures can by done by the following techniques: Filtration, Distillation, Extraction, and Chromatography  – This is all stuff that alchemists learned how to do hundreds of years ago without access to our sophisticated digital age crap, and that means we can do it to.

Last thing in lesson 1:
Solids.

Solids are a state of matter where the atoms/molecules are kind of locked together into a rigid structure, either by chemical bonds or by intermolecular forces. That means that, for all practical purposes, solids are essentially crystallized into hard shapes (the exception being amorphous solids like rubber). Now, solids have different densities (mass/volume ratio) which can actually be observed on the molecular level.

The way that solids actually work is that the molecules/atoms inside form crystal structures, the type of structure that they form is usually dependent on a number of conditions, like the way they are bonded, the size of the atoms and relative size of the atoms to one another and the uniformity of the material.  A very uniform material, like pure elemental copper, will form close packed crystal structures, where all the atoms are as close together as possible.  This will be important down the road. Anyway, solids are categorized by the way they are bonded.

The types of solids are Ionic (table salt), Metallic (metal), Network Atomic (diamond), Molecular (ice), and Amorphous (rubber).  This is all important shit to know because we’ll need to know the properties of each in order to use them effectively for the correct purposes.  I’m just going to hit metallic solids real quick and then wrap up lesson 1, so bear with me.

Understanding Metallic solids is going to be a huge step forward for our survival, so i’m going to just get right to it, and it will combine pretty much everything we’ve just learned.   We know that metals are good conductors, that they are shiny, and that they are malleable (bendable)  and ductile (can be made into wire). The reason why is because when metals form solids, they have more available orbitals than they have electrons. I’ll explain this better… solids that are metallically bonded are essentially atoms that freely share their electrons, meaning that it doesn’t take much energy for electrons to move around which translates to: metal does not present a high level of resistance to electricity.  Electrons are always moving, and since in metal, they’re free to move beyond their orbit into neighboring orbitals, they are the perfect tool for transmitting an electrical charge. All that movement of electrons creates a superspecial magic forcefield that light has a hard time penetrating, therefor it’s reflected, and viola, luster.

Because the atoms in metal are packed closely together in a simple, uniform, crystalline structure, they are able to flow past each other, but because they strongly attract one another, they stay close to each other, which allows you to change the shape of metal.  The best way to envision the molecular structure of metal, is to picture the crystalline atom shapes floating like cheerios in a milky sea of electrons.  Because there’s little resistance in this sea of copper cheerios, the crystals are able to flow past and around each other without pushing each other apart allowing the solid to be bent without breaking. That’s why metal can be hammered into thin sheets or pulled into wires.

It’s pretty clear that metal is important to us; if you look at the differences between the stone age and the bronze age. Understanding the way that metal works is one of the main reasons that chemistry can be immediately applicable to our survival, and eventually, allow us to build that Iron Man suit and fly out of the wilderness at mach 4.

One Response to Survival 101: Chemistry – the Kung Fu of Survival – Lesson 1

  1. Jim

    NICELY WRITTEN! It is great to finally have someone decipher this chemistry info in plain fucking English! Thanks for posting this! As I read this first lesson im starting to recall all that “crap-i’d-never-use-in-real-life-so-why-learn-it” in high school… i look forward to learning more. -Jim

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