Spectator Ions 4/19/19

By Richard Bleil

Chemists define ions as charged atoms or groups of atoms. For example, the nitrate polyatomic ion is one nitrogen, thee oxygens and has a net charge of -1. I like nitrates; they’re cheaper than day rates. The negative charge means that the nitrate group of ions picked up an extra electron somewhere along the way. Silver ions, on the other hand, are just silver atoms with a +1 charge, so the silver lost an electron.

It is convenient to assume the electron left the silver and went to the nitrate. There is, of course, no way to track individual electrons, so there is no way to prove that the extra nitrate electron came from silver. Still, though, it does make for a neat little package in our mind.

The world is electrically neutral, so since silver has a +1 charge, and nitrate as -1, they cancel out with a one-to-one ratio. As such, the chemical formula for silver nitrate is one silver to one nitrate, or AgNO3 (where, to be formally correct, “3” should be subscripted, but alas, my software does not allow for this).

Silver nitrate is an “electrolyte”, because it dissolves in water, and electrolytes actually “dissociate” in water. This means that the silver and nitrate ions do not stay together. Much like a couple going to a party, they are there together, but they don’t stay together the entire time. Some salts, on the other hand, are insoluble, so they don’t dissolve at all.

Your drinking water contains electrolytes as well. One of the more common ions is the chloride ion, which, like nitrate, has a -1 charge. Chloride entered your water as part of an ionic compound as well, although we don’t know what its partner was. Did it enter as sodium chloride? Potassium chloride? Iron? Lead? Chromium? We just don’t know.

Ions that don’t actually participate in a chemical reaction are called “spectator ions”. They are called “spectator” because they don’t actually do anything; they are in the solution, but do little more than observe what is happening. They are dissolved ions before the reaction occurs, and they end up being dissolved ions when the reaction is done.

One of the most common tests or chloride content in water is the silver nitrate test. One begins with the water to be tested, and a solution of dissolved silver nitrate, which will have dissociated silver and nitrate ions. Silver ions will react with chloride ions to form the insoluble silver chloride compound. Because silver chloride is insoluble, it will “precipitate out” of the solution, meaning, you will see the white silver chloride crystals form in the liquid and fall to the bottom, much like a precipitate. The nitrate? A spectator ion. It will remain in solution, not participating at all in the reaction.

As it turns out, nitrate is an oxidizing agent. There are other reactions that will utilize the oxidizing power of the nitrate for the reaction, and the silver ions could be the spectator ions. It’s not common, though; silver, as you might well imagine, is rather expensive even in its salt form, and prices are based on the value of silver at the time of purchase.

This strikes me as an analogy. How many times are we spectators, happy to watch ass events occur but never really participating. Sometimes, maybe we are spectators in events that we have no interest in, or power to control anyway. As I write this, I’m watching a rather odd and eccentric movie. It’s fun, but very unusual. Made in 1988, there is nothing I can do now to change it. I was in graduate school as it was being filmed, but if I had known that it was being filmed, I’m sure that I would have been a spectator anyway. I could have had the greatest ideas for the film, but the director, writer, producer, actors all had their vision for the movie. Tried as I might, I never could have changed this film.

I think of the women I have known throughout the years. When I was in high school, I had the biggest crush on a young woman, Melissa, cheerleader and one of a pair of twins, but I never told her. I never took that chance. I was too bashful, too frightened, and as such, I was little more than a spectator in her high school life. I don’t think (although I couldn’t say with any amount of certainty) that she had a boyfriend, so what was the kernel of this fear? Why couldn’t I just say to her, I like you, can we have lunch sometime. Now, it’s too late, and I hope she is a happily married grandmother at this point if, indeed, that is what she wanted with her life. If not, I hope she has been successful by her own definition.

Some women I did take a chance with, and they were not interested. Again, I was a spectator, but maybe I don’t mind this so much. So many of these women that have turned me down are still my friends, as are many who took a chance, but it didn’t work out. I love that; I have influenced their lives, and they mine. The products of my reaction with them may not have turned out to be as I had hoped, but the results are there.

Today, we are surrounded by events in politics, ecology, military policy, business, and so much more. Perhaps, as a society, many people feel as I did with Melissa, that these are so far beyond us that it just doesn’t matter what we do, and therefore rarely take a chance to interact. But, let’s be honest; maybe I could have had a marvelous high school romance if I had tried. As Americans, we are not as involved with the political machine as we should be. We don’t write our congress representatives, we don’t campaign for our favorite candidates, we don’t protest, heck, often, we don’t even vote, all because of this belief that it won’t matter. Maybe it won’t as individuals, but then again, if we make an effort, we can also influence others. Grass roots movements all start with one person. And if you don’t try, then she’ll never know how you feel.

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