Monthly Archives: May 2021

Water as a solvent

Not actually universal

Thinking of solutions often makes me think of water. I’m fascinated by water’s multiple uses in our world. As a cleaning agent, for example. What does it mean, that water cleans things? Well, take the case of dirty dishes. You’ve got some dinner dishes, with small scraps of meat, vegetables, some sauce, some cake crumbs, etc. They’ve been left on the sideboard for a few hours, so that the food scraps have dried out and are stuck to the dishes. Put these few plates, bowls, forks, knives and spoons in a basin of warm water for, say, twenty minutes. You will find that, with a minimal quantity of cleaning agents added – soap is perfectly adequate – you’ll be able to remove all the crumbs and bits of sauce from the plates and utensils easily with your hands. I find hands really great for cleaning, you can feel every lump and bump.

So what’s happening here? Certain chemical processes have occurred. First, The material on the crockery has dried out, over a period of hours. That means it has lost water to the surrounding air. Evaporation of water can occur at any temperature, as the surface water molecules have a higher kinetic energy, explained apparently by the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, which I won’t go into here.

So when the dirty dishes are placed in water, reactions occur. Stuff dissolves in water. This is because H₂O is a polar molecule – its oxygen head is electronegative and its two hydrogen tails are electropositive. That’s because the oxygen pulls the electrons it shares with the hydrogen – called covalent bonding – closer to itself, giving it a slightly negative charge, and the hydrogens a slightly positive charge. This polarity attracts water molecules to each other. So if there are any water molecules left on the dirty dishes, and there will be, the basin water will be attracted to them, so softening and breaking up the food particles. And if there is salt in the sauce and sugar in the cake, these will dissolve in the water, because the polar bonds in H₂O are stronger than the ionic bonds in salt (NaCl), so breaking them down, and H₂O will connect with the polar O-H bonds in sucrose (C12H22O11).

I’ve mentioned two other useful factors for cleaning – heat and soap. Any unfortunate who sugars their coffee will know how effective heat is for dissolving their poison. This is simply to do with the energy state of the water molecules. The excited molecules interact more rapidly with the sugar, or salt, causing their rapid dissolution. Soap, and other detergents, act as cleansing agents for a very different reason.

Some substances, particularly hydrocarbons, such as hexane (C₆H₁₄), found in petrol and many glues, are insoluble in water. In our example, think of cooking oil and fats. Greasy stuff. Soap is made up of molecules called surfactants. These lengthy molecules have a water-loving (hydrophilic) head and a grease-loving (hydrophobic) tail, so to speak. Here’s a neat summary of what happens, from Science on the shelves, a website of the University of York:

The head of the molecule is attracted to water (hydrophilic) and the tail is attracted to grease and dirt (hydrophobic). When the detergent molecules meet grease on clothes [or dishes], the tails are drawn into the grease but the heads still sit in the water. The attractive forces between the head groups and the water are so strong that the grease is lifted away from the surface. The blob of grease is now completely surrounded by detergent molecules and is broken into smaller pieces which are washed away by the water.

More detail can be gone into here, but this is a start. The fact that water is such an effective solvent has so many implications for all living organisms it’s hard to know what to turn to next, so I’ll have to give it a think.

I should point out that in researching this piece, which certainly wasn’t hard work, I found at least a dozen good videos describing water as a solvent, and there were countless other videos describing other properties of water. I’m very grateful to be living in the internet age, when so much of this thought-provoking material is so readily available.

some references

Water as a solvent | Water, acids, and bases | Biology | Khan Academy (video)

Properties of Water (video – Amoeba Sisters


solutions to current political dogma 3 – Taiwan

We’re literally the first generation that can actually do democracy because it was illegal in our parents’ age. Because of that, there’s a lot more room to innovate.

Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister

inside Taiwan’s Social Innovation Lab

Taiwan is a nation with a complex recent history and an uncertain future, faced as it is with an aggressive and extremely powerful neighbour which utterly rejects its claim to independence. But while this future largely depends on the winds, or whims, of international support for its fledgling democracy, it is making progress on its own with new approaches to participatory decision-making, using crowd-sourcing and other digital methods.

These new approaches had their foundation in 2014, when a mass protest movement, called the Sunflower Movement, sprang up in opposition to an attempt by then President Ma Ying-jeou, of the governing Kuomintang, to create a trade deal with China, called the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) – clearly a highly sensitive issue, especially for Taiwan’s youth. The demonstrations – effectively opposing the one China policy in general – were massive, involving half a million people out of a population almost equal to that of Australia, but they were also ‘smart’, as they involved the use of smart phones to communicate and organise effectively.

The success of the Sunflower Movement led eventually to a change of government – the Kuomintang, which had democratised since the 1990s but which had long been tainted with neofascism, was finally ousted in 2016, and a centre-left government, the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), was installed, and returned with an increased majority in 2020. But a perhaps a more interesting outcome of the movement was the development of online participatory democracy platforms such as vTaiwan. The DPP has embraced digital technology to the point of creating a Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, a heroine to a diversity of communities.

Participatory or open democracy is an attempt to flatten hierarchies by creating online spaces for citizen deliberation and more open access to elected representatives. The emphasis is on diversity, and ‘forking the government’, a joke term of sorts, which Jess Scully explains:

In programming, forking means creating alternative approaches to a subset of a program (that is, writing some new code) and testing those in parallel with the status quo. Once the alternative code is working well, it’s merged into the system permanently.

J Scully, Glimpses of utopia, p 60

As Tang explains, forking, in the strictly digital sense, has become a more flexible process in recent years, and this can be seen as a metaphor for governance. She sees her department as horizontal, and set within a broader government system that is as horizontally organised as practicable. Other terms such as sandboxing, are taken from the new tech world to describe experimental processes contained in lower-risk spaces such as the nation’s Social Innovation Lab before unleashing them on an unsuspecting public. These processes encourage the testing and tweaking of a diversity of inputs and responses to proposals from within or outside government, and clearly vTaiwan, the online platform, plays a key role. Government bureaucrats are encouraged to be proactive in formulating ideas and expected to be accountable in providing feedback to others. Accountability and reward go together.

It all sounds very idealistic, and there have certainly been roadblocks – such as getting government reps to take the issues discussed seriously – but vTaiwan and other such open-source platforms have allowed dissenters to articulate their grievances, and more importantly, to suggest solutions. Demonstrations can give way to consultations and collaboration. One key innovation in this consultative process is that no comments are permitted on proposals, thus eliminating divisiveness and trolling. Instead, proposals are upvoted or downvoted, so that maps of consensus can quickly emerge. Also, some proposals garner more attention for or against than others and so can be seen as focusing on issues of greatest public concern.

An even more successful platform, endorsed and utilised by Tang, is Join, created by the National Development Council, another government initiative. Often debate and contributions on these platforms lead to a complete reformulation of the original issue with innovative and wide-ranging solutions.

Taiwan’s outstanding performance in combatting Covid-19 has naturally made the country a focus of international interest. In an article written last December, ‘Digital participation in Taiwan: takeaways for Europe’, Dominik Hierlemann and Stefan Roch described the country’s success:

Taiwan’s open and vibrant social media called the “PTT bulletin board” was able to pick up the news and evidence of a new and dangerous virus in Wuhan as early as December 2019 and directed the information effectively to Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control. Based on that information, the centre started to check all incoming flights from Wuhan and created a collective information system for all citizens, as well as with the help of citizens. As Taiwan immediately started rationing masks, an interactive App was quickly developed that helps people track down pharmacies that have masks on stock, so that the entire population could be effectively supplied. To this day, the Centre of Disease Control holds daily public briefings based on information collaboratively collected by itself, experts and citizens.

As Audrey Tang points out, Taiwan has more social media accounts than it has citizens, and it treats cheap broadband access as essentially a human right. With encouragement from one of the world’s most tech-savvy governments, the population is digitally interconnected like no other. And the Social Innovation Lab, based in Taipei, has a drop-in centre, open 16 hours a day, for people to meet, talk and eat in a relaxed atmosphere, exchanging ideas and plans informally and face-to-face. It all seems to be working, and more and more people worldwide are taking an interest.


Jess Scully, Glimpses of Utopia, 2020

D Hierlemann & S Roch, ‘Digital participation in Taiwan: takeaways for Europe’, Dec 1 2020