Humor in chemistry? You bet! This quiz is for those who enjoy puns and jokes, so here are a few with a chemical flavor. A little chemistry or general science knowledge will help but is not essential. Remember, the focus is on the jokes not the science!
#1. Three chemical symbols for elements are used in this joke: He, Cm and Ba. "I helium (He) when they're sick" said one doctor. "I curium (Cm) too" said another. "Aha" said the third man in the group, "if you two fail, I...(Ba)". What is this last word? (Hint, if you're struggling, read the joke aloud)
There are several bad jokes involving the names (or symbols) for elements. They all involve the similarity of the element’s name with similar words in English. Some of the puns are truly excruciating. The joke above is actually one of the better (and more famous) ones! Another involves a chemist who, while chasing after a man who’d just stolen his wallet, keeps calling out “Cs, Cs” (Cs = cesium, groan!).
#2. A very bad chemical pun: "What is green and very, very large?" (In fact, 6.02 x 10 to the power 23).
Avogadro’s number is one of the most important constants in chemistry. It is equal to the number of carbon-12 atoms in 12.000 g of carbon-12. This number is also called the ‘mole’ and bears no resemblance to the mammal of the same name!
#3. Now you have to finish the joke! A neutron walks into a bar, orders a beer and asks how much it will cost. What is the barman's response, which is based upon a key characteristic of a neutron?
Neutrons are uncharged subatomic particles, which together with the positively charged protons, make up the nucleus of atoms. Generally, large atoms are involved in fission (e.g. some isotopes of uranium), not the subatomic particles.
#4. Two atoms meet at the bar. One says to the other, "You look sad, are you all right?" "No, I've just lost an electron!" The first says "Are you sure?" Which of the following options is the correct punch line?
Atoms are composed of equal numbers of protons (positively charged) and electrons (negatively charged). So when a electron is lost, the atom has one more proton than electron and is hence positively charged. The gaining and loss of electrons is the basis of most chemical reactions. This positively charged entity is called a cation (pronounced as ‘cat-iron’, it does not rhyme with station).
#5. Werner Heisenberg, the scientist famous for his Uncertainty Principle, was out for a late night drive when he was pulled over by a traffic policeman. The cop then asks Heisenberg "Do you know how fast you were going?". What was Heisenberg's reply?
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle stipulates that you cannot simultaneously know the position and momentum of a fundamental particle. In the joke, Heisenberg knows his position hence therefore can’t know his speed, or more precisely his velocity (since momentum is mass x velocity).
#6. Formaldehyde has a molecular formula of CH2O. But as a pun, what might CH2O also represent? (Hint: Read it as C-H2O)
The pun is CH2O is C followed by H2O which is then read as sea-water. Formaldehyde is a clear, strong smelling liquid and is used as a disinfectant and a preservative for biological specimens. Seawater is a much funnier answer!
#7. Helium walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The bar tender says "We don't serve noble gases like you in here." What's the punch line to this joke?
Noble gases are extremely unreactive. Helium can undergo fusion, provide the temperature is high enough (like in the sun). Helium won’t form acids and definitely does not explode. This lack of reactivity arises from their completely full outer shell of electrons. Compounds of some of the larger noble gases (such as Xenon) have been made but are quite esoteric.
#8. During a routine car inspection, a man was arrested for possessing sodium chloride and a nine-volt device. What was he charged with? (pun intended)
Yes, an appalling pun! Sodium chloride is commonly known as “salt”. Dissolving this salt in water means the solution formed will readily conduct electricity (from the 9V battery in a suitable circuit), whereas pure water is a poor conductor.
#9. Another chance to guess the punchline! A photon checks into a hotel. The manager asks him if he needs any assistance with his luggage. How does the photon respond? The answer is related to the nature of a photon!No, I'm travelling light.
A photon is a discrete amount (a ‘quantum’) of light energy, first hypothesized by Max Planck and leading to the seminal work of Bohr and others on quantum mechanics. This energy is related to the wavelength of light. Ultraviolet light has more energy than visible light. Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his investigations into the photo-electric effect, where he explained how light shining on a metallic surface could generate an electric current.
#10. That great English spy, 007, went to visit his brother who was living in far northern Canada. How did James' brother introduce himself? (Choose the most appropriate answer given the location of their meeting!)
All of the options are real types of chemical bonds. Bonds are formed using the electrons from the two (or more) atoms involved. The number of electrons in the outer shell of each element is a very important factor determining what type of bond that element forms. Elements with full outer shells (the Noble Gases) generally don’t form bonds. A polar bond occurs where the two electrons in the bond on average spend more time closer to one nucleus (the more electronegative atom) than the other.
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