Epistula | 4 Minutes

A Simple Yet Elegant Lab | Elizabeth Nelson

Written by Elizabeth Nelson

As typically introduced in elementary school, students learn about the three states of matter: solids, liquids, and gases. But it isn’t until later that they realize there is much more than “meets the eye” to these phases of matter. One can see gases and liquids flow and connect this to a “micro” view of particles moving around each other. But what about solids? Do solids – like ice or bricks or stainless steel - have particles that move? Even solids – ice, brick, steel – are comprised of particles that are moving! All matter has energy. All particles in matter are moving…. until…..you reach…..Absolute Zero.

One of the simplest yet elegant labs performed by VSA Chemistry students is the determination of Absolute Zero. Absolute Zero – or 0 Kelvin - corresponds to -273.15oC and is the point at which all molecular motion stops. It is the point at which there is zero energy in the system. This is a theoretical point that cannot be directly observed. Labs have come close to reaching it…. but have never fully achieved it. But there is an indirect approach – extrapolation. This is a wonderful example of the merging of math and science.

With air trapped in a 60 mL syringe and 3 samples of water (very hot, very cold, and room temperature), students collect data showing the temperature of the trapped gas and its corresponding volume. My favorite part of this lab is that the classes will pool their data and graph the many (Temperature, Volume) points. Once graphed, they will find the “line of best fit” that can be drawn through the points until it crosses the x-axis. With high hopes, this line of best fit will cross the x-axis at – you guessed it - -273.15oC or Absolute Zero.

Note the attached graphs and how close these students came to reaching the target. The “group effort” and reward resulting from lower percent error is an exciting event to witness! These types of results are best achieved with many data points. Typically, with greater numbers of students sharing their data, they will see values close to the target. Notice how each individual class had higher percent errors than all three classes’ data points combined. This reminds me of the passage in Acts 2, which speaks of the brothers living together in unity and sharing all they had. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Something as simple as a graphical analysis can serve as a reminder of how believers need each other for greater works. You might also note on one of the graphs how there are clusters of points around the line of best fit…and then some outliers. These data points suggest there may have been some error in the procedure. Statisticians might suggest that these outliers should not be included in the data and remove those data points. They don’t contribute to the true picture of the experiment.

Do you see another truth we can glean from this fact? We need discernment when striving for or presenting truth.

CLASS A (22% ERROR)

CLASS B (32% ERROR)

CLASS C (5.2% ERROR)

DATA MERGED FROM ALL THREE CLASSES (3.14% ERROR)

Another interesting thing happens to matter at Absolute Zero, or temperatures close to it. The nature of matter changes. Collisions and vibrations no longer exist. The substance’s identity is changed. The particles’ wave (or quantum) nature predominates, and the waves overlap into a single entity, sometimes referred to as a “super atom” (Muir, 2010). I think this is another beautiful reflection of Christ’s church body. We are hidden in Christ. Our identity is in Him and we pray that we reflect Him to others. We pray that we will decrease and He will increase. We work together toward a common goal: Christ’s glory, His salvation proclaimed, and unity in purpose and love and the communication of truth. Christ is in all things and all things were created for Him and by Him and in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

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