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Lesson 7) More Than Chemical (The History of Research, Atomic and Molecular Composition)

Welcome once again to the dungeons, my young and ever eager potioneers! As you have hopefully noticed at this point in the course, magic plays an important role - to put it mildly - in the chemical changes and reactions that occur within a potion during brewing. Some of these reactions are caused by the magical ingredients themselves; however, brewing would not be nearly as effective or reliable if it were not for the external magic that comes from your wand during the brewing process. This lesson, I’d like to take a bit of a closer look at this phenomenon, as well as some very basic concepts regarding the structure of ingredients.

Until The End of Time
Large Hand Carved Mahogany Wood Spoon great for cauldron | EtsyHistorically speaking, wands were not always used in the brewing of potions. Witches and wizards created and utilized magical mixtures and compounds before the wand as we know it today was even introduced. Potioneering during that time was highly experimental, and many of the concoctions were invented and subsequently recreated based on intuition rather than a solid foundational knowledge of potion theory. The knowledge obtained through the successes and failures of these early witches and wizards forms the foundation of what we now recognize as the ingredients’ magical uses and properties.

So without a wand, how were potions then brewed and stirred? Well, to a great extent, much of what was used in the earliest days was more a magical solution that displayed the properties of the ingredients that composed the mixture rather than the magical formation of new compounds. Certain chopped ingredients would be spread through a liquid base and would then be put over an open fire in order to smooth and blend into the final product. It would be stirred throughout the process with a wooden spoon or similar implement. Such tools are really only used in potioneering today to ensure the final potion is of an even consistency before transferring it to a vial to be labeled and stored. Occasionally, multiple magical ingredients would be used to attain various effects, but they would not react with one another at any point in the brewing process.

To use an example, we have records of something that was called a Snake Bite Antidote that was used in the Mediterranean region a few thousand years ago. The ingredients for this “potion” included dittany, murtlap essence, and bezoar, along with other mundane ingredients such as aloe. All of these items were chopped, placed in a pot, heated and stirred until they made a relatively consistent paste. This paste was then to be applied directly to the bite and bandaged, with instructions to change the dressing daily until the wound healed.

Now, although this seemed like a relatively successful treatment for venomous snake bites, we should take a moment to examine the qualities of the paste that was created. It was not, in fact, a potion as we now think of it, but rather a solution that contained a mixture of ingredients that were good for treating snake bites individually. If a witch or wizard were bitten by a snake, it would have been logical to apply all of these ingredients as a series as well: dittany and murtlap essence in order to treat the actual flesh wound, bezoar as an attempt to lessen the effects of the venom (although a bezoar is better suited to treating poisons than venom toxin) and mundane ingredients, such as aloe, to numb the painful bitten area and decrease swelling or inflammation. Instead of applying these ingredients in succession, however, witches and wizards realized the value in combining them as a single faster-acting treatment. Entrepreneurial healers and other magical people at this time also recognized that they could go through the process of chopping, heating, and bottling this antidote in order to sell it to their neighbors to have on-hand in case of a snake bite. Mixtures such as these marked the start of the use of serums, tinctures, and potions as a business model.

Of course there are still magical ingredients which will interact with one another, either upon contact or when combined over the energy created by a heat source. We will get into the molecular changes that this energy can induce later in the lesson, but for the sake of understanding this method of brewing, it is important to remember that even if magical ingredients react to one another with or without thermal energy, the reaction will never be as strong or quite the same as it is when an external magical catalyst of some sort is used. The effects of the potions created by this brewing method seem to have been somewhat milder as well, and this may be a partial explanation for non-magical beings’ supposed ability to consume them without drastic side effects. Not only were magical and non-magical people often living and interacting more closely at that time, which means that non-magical people were more likely to have a great magical tolerance, but if the potions created by healers for both types of clients were lessened in strength overall, Muggles may have been more easily able to ingest or otherwise use the same concoctions as those given to wizards.

Over time, as the wand - a wood instrument containing a magical core of some sort - we now use began to gain popularity, we see wizards beginning to use them to stir their cauldrons. Now at first, many did exactly what I have repeatedly told you not to do, and actually stuck the tip of their wand into the potion in order to stir it. This was mostly done out of sheer laziness when their spoon or other implement was too far out of reach rather than with the intention of using the magic in their wands to somehow alter or affect the potion. Eventually they realized that it was actually much more efficient if they used a Stirring Charm, however, instead of risking their wand using it to manually stir. It also increased the wood life of the wand, for even magical objects such as wands can have the wood corroded if exposed to strong magical substances over time.

Beyond preserving the wood of their wand for longer, wizards realized that this magic being enacted on the potions they brewed had some interesting outcomes. Certain ingredients, when combined together previously, came out of this new magically brewed process entirely different. Some had new or increased effects and uses, others were much more potent, and others became incredibly hazardous and unstable. In the beginning, wizards did not think much of this difference other than attributing it to an inherent property of magic.

Today, most witches and wizards still do not concern themselves with the “why” of potioneering, so long as their recipes create the desired outcome. During this earlier period and even up until relatively recently, potioneering research was almost exclusively concerned with experimental combinations of new magical and mundane ingredients rather than the specific properties of the new concoctions. Even today, witches and wizards who investigate the mundane properties of magic are often considered a bit odd or out of touch in the magical community.

However, back in the 19th century, some curious wizard researchers in Vienna, Austria began investigating the precise chemical properties of potions before and after brewing. Their findings were rather interesting. Research suggested that the chemical compositions of potions brewed using magic differed drastically from those that were simply solutions that utilized the same ingredients. In 1853, Eule des Trankers, an Austrian potioneering publication that still prints on an annual basis, published sections of their findings. This was considered rather controversial at the time, for the report contained many mundane and non-magical scientific concepts, which were deemed by most of the Austrian magical community to be peculiar topics for wizards to spend any time studying. However, a few more zealous philanthropists were intrigued by these findings, and thus began Vienna’s illustrious, if sometimes mocked, potions research tradition.

These wealthy funders continued to bring potioneers who could find very little support to test their theories of the structure of potions to Vienna from around the world, and began creating small potioneering graduate academies and laboratories. This odd assortment of still somewhat misfit researchers often study mundane science as well as potions in order to supplement their knowledge. It becomes difficult, as magic so often interferes with Muggle technology, so much of the more high-powered, complex equipment does not function properly, but that is something the potioneers seek to study in more detail as well in order to see if they can find magical technologies (or alter Muggle instruments) to work to the same overall effect.

This historical background brings us to our next practical topic.I have made mention of a potion's molecular composition and referenced the activity of these particles within a substance. Change is constantly occurring during brewing in the form of phase transitions along with a change in chemical composition as brewing occurs. Today I’d like to go into a bit more detail as to what molecules and atoms are in order to give you a somewhat better understanding of what transpires as you brew a potion. You’ve likely discussed this in brief in Transfiguration, and the mechanics in Potions are much the same.

And We’re Unbreakable
Everything you perceive around you right now - solids, liquids, and gases - are all composed of atoms. There are particles that are smaller than atoms, of course, but for the sake of course discussion, we will stop at the atomic level for now. Atoms are composed of a nucleus that consists of positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons which are bound together. Negatively charged electrons are bound to the protons based on these opposing charges, and they orbit the nucleus forming an electron cloud. Protons, electrons, and neutrons are all called fermions.

This graphic illustrates the proton, neutron, and electron composition of a particular atom, namely a Lithium (abbreviated as Li) atom. Electrons are presented in grey, and you can see them orbiting a nucleus formed with blue neutrons and red protons. Now this is obviously a diagram that is only meant to generally illustrate the structure, not an image of how an actual atom would appear under a high-enough powered microscope.

Note that there are three protons and three electrons in this atom. A Lithium atom in a stable form will always have three protons and three electrons. Likewise, if you are ever presented with an atom with three protons and three electrons, you can safely assume that it is the element known as Lithium. We arrange elements in a table known as the Periodic Table of Elements based on the number of protons - and therefore the number of electrons - in their stable, uncharged form. For example, Hydrogen (H), the lightest element, will always have one proton and one electron.

The number of neutrons can vary, however, as these particles are neutrally charged, and one can therefore have fewer or more of these fermions without changing the charge of the atom. An element with a varying number of neutrons is called an isotope. It should be emphasized that isotopes inhabit the same place on the Periodic Table, as they have the same number of protons. They are instead identified by the total number of fermions to be found in their nucleus. For example, two stable isotopes of the element Helium (He) exist naturally: Helium-3 and Helium-4. Helium has two protons (and two electrons). Helium-3 refers to a helium atom which has one neutron and two protons composing its nucleus, while helium-4 has two neutrons and two protons.

Something Strange Is Happening
So we have an overview of individual atoms, but how do we get from atoms floating around on their own to the more complex molecules that we know that they form, such as water, nitric acid, and carbon dioxide?

To start, let’s consider a magnet. If you’ve ever used two magnets, you will likely notice that while the magnets will stick if the positively and negatively-charged sides are pointed towards one another, “like” charges repel one another. It’s possible you never considered one as positive and the other as negative, but have observed this phenomenon. Protons and electrons are something like magnets with opposing charges, which is what keeps the electrons in orbit around the protons. In the same vein, electrons will repel one another the same way that magnets with similarly charged sides will.

So, when two atoms come in contact with one another, it would be natural to assume they would repel, as the electron clouds are what would be closest to one another. However, this isn’t exactly what happens. The electrons will try to repel one another, true. But the electrons will also be attracted to the protons in the other atom’s nucleus. In this way, as the electrons push away from one another, they continue to be pulled towards the positively charged nucleus until they reach a kind of stasis between the nuclei. These electron pairs form what is called a covalent bond.

As atoms, not necessarily of the same element, bond to one another, they form what we call molecules. These molecules are the familiar chemical compounds we identify in our daily lives. However everything, natural or manmade, is composed of elements which make up simple or complex molecules.

The above two diagrams illustrate two very common and relatively simple molecules. The figure on the left shows methane (annotated as CH₄), which is composed of one carbon atom that shares covalent bonds in all four of its electrons with four hydrogen atoms. The figure on the left illustrates carbon dioxide (annotated as CO₂), in which the four carbon electrons, shown in black pair with two of each of the oxygen atoms’ six electrons, as shown in red.

Although you do not have to worry about this in too much detail for the sake of this lesson, even manmade and synthetic materials are composed of atoms from the periodic table bound together in molecular compositions. Take, for example, Plexiglass (polymethyl methacrylate), a durable plastic that Muggles often use in order to replace glass. Plexiglass is essentially formed from a massive number of methyl methacrylate molecules bound together. The simplified formula for this compound is C₅O₂H₈, or rather the molecule consists of five carbon atoms, two oxygen atoms, and eight hydrogen atoms in a very particular arrangement. Notice these are the three elements used to create methane and carbon dioxide. However, Plexiglass is not simply carbon dioxide and methane smooshed together: it exhibits different properties than both compounds simply owing to the specific way the atoms are arranged.

The purpose of this lesson’s explanation of the nature of molecular bonding is to clarify the necessity for magic to break and reform covalent bonds during a magical chemical reaction. Massive amounts of thermal energy might be able to cause such a reaction, but simply putting your cauldron over a fire, even a very large fire, will not create enough thermal energy to do more than excite the existing molecules until they undergo a phase transition rather than breaking and reforming the bonds. That is to say, water molecules would still be structured like water molecules and methane molecules would still be methane, but the molecular activity would just be more dynamic and extreme.

The magic found in magical ingredients is also usually not quite strong or focused enough to initiate this reaction, although it may impact the mixture in your cauldron on a smaller scale. However, the concentrated magical energy that is utilized when you use your wand is sufficiently strong to break and restructure the covalent (and other) molecular bonds within magical and mundane substances and lead to new chemical structures being formed. This is why, although you put certain ingredients or chemical compounds - such as snake fangs, horned slugs, and porcupine quills to create a Cure for Boils - into your cauldron to brew a potion, the compounds you get at the end of brewing have different chemical properties. The elements that made up those initial ingredients would still be present, as natural law confirms that you cannot simply unmake mass, and you would not be splitting atoms, since that brings about entirely different issues of stability (atomic reactions in your potions lab would not really be a good idea). However, the atoms are restructured to create a new compound. Consider the differences between synthetic Plexiglass and carbon dioxide or methane: they share the same basic elements, but are arranged differently as an entirely new structure.

The manner in which potions researchers, such as those in Vienna, use this knowledge of bonding is not necessary for a basic understanding of household potions, or even in a capacity as a Healer, but it is a rather crucial general piece of theoretical knowledge to have as you move forward in your study of potions. While it is always good to know that a certain process does fundamentally work, a basic understanding of what you are doing is always even more useful.

There are two essay tasks for you to complete this week. Initially, I would like you to pick one common potions ingredient and research its biochemical composition. Pick one chemical or family of chemicals derived from that ingredient and discuss it in at least 250 words. You can usually find this simply by researching its biochemical composition. For example, if you choose valerian, you are free to discuss either a specific chemical, such as actinidine, or you may discuss alkaloids as a whole. More specifics can be found in the prompt.

On the other hand, if you are interested in the history and methods of old time potioneering, you will have a chance to try your hand at creating an old time potion. In at least 200 words, detail a problem that could potentially be solved with an old time potion and then list which ingredients you would combine in order to provide a solution. Make sure that you remember what are the main differences between old time potioneering and modern brewing in this assignment.


Original lesson written by Professor Lucrezia Batyaeva
Image credits via Wikimedia Commons and here

In Year Two, Potions students will delve more deeply into potioneering, theory, and will explore in greater detail how certain potions can impact a witch or wizard's biological processes.
Course Prerequisites:
  • PTNS-101

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