The Soda File

“Which boy can tell me about sodium?”

“Please, sir.” One of the little crawlers in the front row of the class shot his arm up, revealing a neatly-ironed white sleeve. “It’s salt, sir.”

“WRONG!” the teacher roared. He thumped his fist on the desk so hard that a pen jumped. Glaring at stupidity, he told us, “It’s a metal.”

‘Basher’ was the only teacher who terrified us in elementary chemistry classes. The hulk behind the desk was infinitely old with jowls like a Labrador retriever, a few wispy hairs greased back in a pretense of covering his bald pate, and a large fat nose squished like a slug to one side. He only smiled when our public exam results came through, and that gesture betrayed a row of crooked teeth like leaning gravestones.  Less courageous boys who avoided his class wondered how such a teacher could shepherd us to so many top grades. But it was no secret—it was FEAR.

We had nicknames for all our teachers, but ‘Basher’ was the most fitting. He had been a heavyweight boxer whom the headmaster hired out of retirement when there was a shortage of qualified chemistry teachers in our London Borough of Sidcup. Basher was a showman because he learned in ‘the ring.’

That day he used a pair of tongs to lift a silvery metal fragment out of a jar filled with oil. “What’s this Farrington?” The boy looked blank and scared.

“Is it sodium, sir?” That was the class smart alec. In those days, our teachers addressed us by our surnames, and they were always ‘Sir’ to us.

He held it in the flame of a Bunsen where it burned with a bright yellow flame. “That’s Na,” he informed us pointing a stubby finger at the large poster on the wall. Later, we heard it was called the Periodic Table. “Now boys, gather round in a circle.”

We trooped from our desks to watch him drop the flaming metal in a tank of water where it raced and fizzled on the surface until extinguished. Our curiosity grew in leaps and bounds when we learned the bubbles were explosive hydrogen gas.  Basher was playing magician and loved being on stage.

We were not the only schoolboys to enjoy this experiment. A generation earlier, the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks described the same on a London pond in his book, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. He wrote: “It took fire instantly and sped around and around on the surface like a demented meteor, with a huge sheet of yellow flame above it.”

Sodium was not the only exciting ‘demonstration’ in chemistry that year. I look back in horror on the day he heated a beaker of benzene on an open bench; I can’t remember its purpose, but loved the sweet odor as it vaporized. Our teacher didn’t tolerate health and safety wimps getting in the way of life experience. The older staff in our boys’ school had grown up facing far greater dangers two decades earlier while serving in the War, and Basher was undoubtedly a commando.

The reason why gratitude to him conquered fear of him was his recipe for making NI3.NH3 from innocent-looking ingredients we could buy in a store. This contact explosive is completely safe while it stays moist, but when dried as a smear it goes off with a loud bang and puff of purple smoke at the slightest touch. It was the perfect revenge for the other class who sneered at us ‘Basherboys.’ Huddling outside all-ears, we waited for class break when they visited the school toilets…

Basher never gave us any practical demonstrations of salt because it was a boring substance. Sodium chloride is an extremely stable union of two highly-reactive ions. It did, however, interest the biology and geography teachers, and no doubt was an ingredient of cookery classes at the girls’ school in those days. Today, there is plenty of talk about common salt, but I hardly ever hear anything about sodium now.

As one of the commonest salts leaching out of the earth’s crust, it is carried down rivers to the oceans where it is concentrated over eons. If life originated in the oceans, seawater bathed the ‘bodies’ of the first creatures before body fluids, and later blood, provided a controlled internal environment. But as oceans became more briny, sea-life had to adapt: bodies become dehydrated when water is withdrawn osmotically from their less concentrated fluids. Our body is only a third as concentrated as seawater. Kidneys and gills in fish or salt glands in seabirds help to expel excess salt from drinking sea water, whereas shellfish and sharks solve the problem differently by conforming to the solute strength around them. Salmon and eels that migrate between the ocean and rivers have extraordinary ways of adapting to salt stress. Even marine fish cannot tolerate much higher concentrations of salt, which is a good preservative for ‘saltfish.’

How did mermaids manage to live in the sea if we can’t? Adrift in a raft, we can only survive for around 10-11 days without fresh water. The temptation for a thirsty survivor to drink seawater is huge, and watching albatrosses sipping it might drive him crazy, but it would hasten delirium and death. Our kidneys can’t produce urine concentrated enough to get rid of excess sodium, so our blood gets more and more briny. In the movie Unbroken, based on a book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, “Louie” Zamperini was afloat on a raft for 47 days in the Pacific Ocean. He drank rainwater.

Lot's wife in Book of Genesis
Lot of salt (200g)

A modest amount of sodium chloride in our diet, along with other minerals, is needed to replace natural losses because its ions are essential for cells to function.  We contain about 200g of sodium chloride, not exactly a “pillar of salt” which was what Lot’s wife was reduced to as punishment for turning to look back at Sodom.

Although we need perhaps as little as 0.5g of salt a day, or a quarter teaspoon, we almost always consume much more. The American Heart Association now advises a new lower limit of 2.3g or only 1.5g for people with hypertension, or who by reason of age or genetics are at risk of high blood pressure and stroke.

But how much salt do we eat and how can we control it? We can push the salt cellar away from our plate and buy unsalted peanuts from the grocery store, but how much are we consuming unwittingly in processed foods and restaurant meals? It is a problem like sugar – salt is tasty and hard to avoid. Basher told us that sodium chloride is unreactive, but as a biologist I take that with a grain of salt.

Next Post: Virginia Nature Journal for February

Virginia Nature Journal for January

  • BurnsPoem

     After the merry Christmas holidays and the high spirits of Hogmanay and Ne’er Day in Scotland, January stretches out, dark, drab and driech. February too promises precious few fine days, although the longer daylight hours are cheering.

    It is time for those at work and home to hunker down, and for snowbirds to fly out of blizzard-blasted northern states and Canada, past chilly Virginia to the warm blanket of southern Florida.

    Young Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Courtesy Geoff Giles

    Birds too are on the move. The neotropicals headed further south several months ago, although a few hardy individuals stayed on in our Williamsburg area through the light snows and recent ice-storm. How would they manage without the hospitality of feeder stations in gardens and yards? Every year, there are reports of a hummingbird and a tanager lingering here in mid-winter, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak visited a friend’s garden this month. I wonder if these vagrants are seasonally disoriented or knowingly hanging around avian soup kitchens, but they are thrilling sights for being among our most colorful birds.

    A flock descending in the backyard like a sudden squall can lift a brow leaning at the computer for a welcome moment of respite from concentrated work. Mostly American Robins and occasionally Red-winged blackbirds or grackles, they are probably not the residents of other times of year for those birds have temporarily gone to more southerly neighborhoods. The winter relatives have come down from the north to feast on left-over berries of holly, wax myrtle, and red cedar. Why the locals moved away before emptying their larder puzzles me, but the policy helps the migrants who replace them. The wrens, nuthatches and chickadees seen at this time of year may also be newcomers, but I like to think my special friends, the cardinals and bluebirds, stay with us the year round. But how could I know unless I banded them?

    bird feeder
    Small bird feeder – fat, grain and seeds

    We only see White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos in the coastal plain in winter. They skulk around the shrubbery, ignoring the gardener at work nearby, and take turns to peck suet on the feeder. Juncos are nick-named ‘snowbirds’ because they are regarded as harbingers of hard weather. In the mountains above 3,000 feet, they are the only birds you can count on seeing throughout January. The deer have no choice but to stay the year round, and many animals perished of starvation in the very hard winter five years ago. Bears are safe from the elements while torpid in their dens. Most other birds and critters move down the valleys to better pickings around creeks or to even further afield. But you can tempt some of them to stay.

    big feeder
    The Big Feeder

    Last fall, I hauled 200 pounds of whole corn and chicken scratch in a barrel 20 feet up in the low canopy between two trees. The job needed a hand winch and a block and tackle. Under a hole in the base of the barrel, a small propeller spins automatically every 12 hours, scattering grain in a 50 foot radius for six seconds. A gamecam monitors the area and a motion detector rings in the house 100 feet away to tell me when to grab binoculars. But the hefty feeder was not installed for the benefit of viewers; it feeds the hungry while I am away, and only needs replenishing every two months.

    Winter trees are wisely bare and silent, but this helps me to see further into the woods. The season is not dead; wildlife are coming to their Time Square.

    In the past few hours, several deer came to nibble grain. Four ruffed grouse in cuddly feather balls strutted around, and two fox squirrels, so much larger and more handsome than gray relatives, darted back and forth with grain to a hiding place. And there was rarely a moment when small birds were absent. There was no fighting over food and, despite the bitter cold, most visitors were in mated pairs. A pineal gland tells them the time of year. I recorded a mother bear grubbing under the feeder with two adorable cubs, but now she may be dreaming of spring with a tiny newborn pup or two attached to her teats. January is hard, but has its compensations, and is full of distant anticipation.

    Next Post: The Soda File