Field of Science

Weird Words of Science: Azote

I was playing Scrabble online the other day and when a z materialized on my rack near the end of the game was desperate enough to try "azo". Good news, what I thought was chemist's shorthand, the dictionary thinks is a word. "Azo" has been part of my vocabulary since I was very young. My dad's graduate work was on azides - molecules that contain three linked nitrogen atoms (N3) tagged at the end and that are notoriously unstable (a fancy chemistry term for "could explode at any time" - at a dinner for his PhD adviser some 25 years later the number of people around the table lacking fingers was astounding). Azo compounds are molecular relatives of the azides - molecules that have an two linked nitrogens in the middle (R-N=N-R). Some azo compounds are brightly colored and generally they are more stable than azides.

As a rule of thumb, if you see "azo" in a compound's name, it's likely to have nitrogen in it somewhere. Why? French chemist Lavoisier dubbed the fraction of air that cannot support life "azote" from the Greek azotos: without + life. We now know that roughly 80% of the air we breathe is nitrogen gas - hence the connection between azo and nitrogen.

Lavoisier's alternate terms was "mephitic air" -- another Greek import, this time from the name of the goddess who prevented noxious smells from arising from sewers: Mephitis. Ironically, while many nitrogen compounds smell awful (dead fish anyone?), nitrogen gas, Lavoisier's mephitic air, is odorless. That goddess has lent her name to smellier pursuits though - the striped skunk's Latin name is Mephitis mephitis. I can personally attest to the smell.

Photo used under Creative Commons license. Credit to Kevin Bowman.

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