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This one weird trick will make scammers HATE you!

by MARS MORALES

You might already know about the dihydrogen monoxide hoax for its famous demonstration of the power of scientific illiteracy: say anything with long, scary words, and people will fear it.

“Dihydrogen monoxide, a main ingredient in pig urine, is in your food!” sounds terrifying if you don’t know it’s just talking about water.

But maybe you’re smarter than that! Psh!

Scammers know this, and they’re always working on new dangers to sell solutions for. Some genuine-sounding claims are that hexagonal water is better for you, and that negative ions are good for you (or deadly. It depends on who you ask).

But for only $599.99 you, too, can make crystal-filtered hexagonal water at home, not including the recurring cost to replace the crystal after it’s “spent!” (Major sarcasm here. Please do not do this.)

We like to think bogus claims will always be easy to spot, but scammers are insidious. I highly recommend grabbing a snack & pillows and watching some Periodic Videos, Vsauce, or Veritasium— there is no such thing as being too scientifically literate.

So here are short explanations of common “fancy terminology” you might find on packaging or being preached in real life.

What is an atom?

It’s the smallest you can break something down before it no longer has an identity.  The word atom comes from a = not, temnein = to cut. “Cannot be cut.”

It might help to think of them like houses. Imagine one with one floor, one with two floors, and one with three floors. These houses are clearly different from each other. But if they are demolished, you get piles of the same stuff; bricks, concrete, etc.

An atom’s identity comes from how many protons it has. Take one with one proton, one with two protons, and one with three protons. “Demolish” these atoms, and you get piles of the same stuff; protons, neutrons, and electrons.

An element is the identity of an atom based on the number of protons it has.

All atoms with exactly one proton are hydrogen. All atoms with exactly two protons are helium. And so on.

Pretty much everything is made up of atoms.

If hexagonal water is fake, why are snowflakes six-sided?

When water molecules freeze, they are arranged like repeating 3-D hexagons. As more water freezes on the snowflake and it grows, the shape is maintained. This video explains it in depth very well.

crystals
A representation of ice crystals.

However, liquid water molecules cannot stay “hexagonal” for more than 200 femtoseconds (or 1/5,000,000,000,000 of a second). Hence, it has no proven health benefits, since nobody can drink quite that fast.

Why does water form beads?

As in the first image, water molecules are lopsided. With negatively-charged electrons hanging out by one “pole” of the oxygen atom and hydrogen atoms on the other, each water molecule is like a very very tiny magnet. This is called the dipole moment (di = apart, palus = stick).

All of these tiny magnets are attracted to each other. This means that water molecules in the middle are attracted in many directions, but molecules at the edges are pulled inward, since there is (usually) nothing in the air that pulls on them as much as the other water molecules.

surface-tension-diagram-droplet
Anatomy of a water droplet. It’s like one big group hug.

Is water affected by life-size magnets?

Yes! You can bend a stream of water with the static electricity in a balloon or comb. Watch a video example of this cool effect here.

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Positively charged molecules, bending the water desperately towards the negatively charged balloon!

Why are water molecules bent?

Because extra electrons take up space, but they are usually omitted from drawings. So if you see atoms pushed into weird shapes for no reason, it’s probably because there are electrons taking up space. In water molecules, those electrons push the hydrogens to one side.

water-molecule
A drawing of a water molecule with the extra electrons ignored. 
watermolecule
Another depiction of a water molecule. This one includes the extra electrons. Each unlabeled gray ball represents a pair of electrons. Thank goodness water has two hydrogens and not one.

What are ions?

All atoms of the same element have the same number of protons. It’s like having the same identification number.

All carbon atoms in the universe have six protons. That’s what makes them behave like carbon! One more, and you have nitrogen, one less, and you have boron. This is very difficult to change.

But you can play around with an atom’s number of electrons. All of chemistry is essentially the study of electrons moving around between atoms.

Protons are positively charged, and electrons are negatively charged, so atoms “want” to have an equal number of each to balance things out. But you can’t always get what you want.

Atoms with an unequal number of electrons and protons are called ions.

Six protons (+6 charge) and seven electrons (-7 charge) adds up to a net (total) charge of -1. This doesn’t mean the atom is sick, evil, or cursed–it just has an excess of electrons. That is okay! Positively-charged things will want to be around it. 🙂

Likewise, having more protons than electrons results in a net positive charge.

Will positive/negative ions kill me?

No. Ions are a part of the universe, just like most everything else, and many life-sustaining processes involve them.

Will positive/negative ions improve my life?

If you’re scamming people into buying “ion machines” for hundreds of dollars each, then I guess so. But that’s a jerk move.

But my hexagonal water machine WORKS!

Okay.

What about radioactive isotopes? *scary music*

Isotopes (iso = same, topos = place) are atoms of the same element (same number of protons), but with different total masses. That’s it.

Protons have mass and are positively charged. Electrons have no mass and are negatively charged.

Neutrons have mass and no charge. So changing the number of neutrons affects the atom’s mass, but does not affect the overall charge.

Neutrons and protons attach to each other to form the atom’s nucleus (center), while electrons “float” around them.

So to recap, isotopes are atoms of the same element but with a different number of neutrons.

Usually, the number of neutrons is close to the number of protons, so different isotopes don’t weigh a whole lot more or less. If the number of neutrons is too much for the atom to handle, it becomes unstable.

carbon
A comical explanation of stable vs. unstable carbon atoms. The number after each “carbon” is its total mass. (Carbon 14 weighs 14 g/mol because 6 + 8 = 14)

This is why we think of radioactivity as dangerous–and it certainly can be.

The atom “wants” to get rid of neutrons to make itself balanced. If the number of neutrons is way too much, the atom breaks up and by doing so releases energy. Sometimes this energy damages human cells, which we call radiation poisoning.

Water your qualifications to talk about this?

I just wanted to make the pun. But, I am a mechanical engineering student at New York University.

In my opinion it’s an engineer’s “Hippocratic oath” to keep people safe from dangers, including deception.

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