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9 Mental Models I Got From Chemistry

We all have mental models.These represent our reality and they affect how we view the world. We use them to arrive at conclusions, make decisions, and learn new things. But we need multiple models if we want to come up with accurate conclusions, make better decisions, and learn effectively.

I first learned about mental models through Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s right-hand man and investment partner. Here’s what Munger said about mental models (emphasis mine):

“You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does…”

Charlie Munger said something about the latticework and having multiple models. We have to learn from different fields (especially science) if we want a fairly accurate representation of the world around us.

In this article, I’ll focus on the mental models I got from chemistry. I’ve prepared a list inspired by Farnam Street’s introduction to mental models.

Special thanks to CrashCourse Chemistry. I watched all 46 videos (over 7.5 hours total) so I can review all the chemistry concepts. I also did some further reading to understand the mental models I’m about to present to you.

Here are the mental models I got from chemistry:

1. Structure determines function (and reactions)

water molecule

Let’s discuss the structure of a water molecule. It has 2 hydrogens and 1 oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen have different electronegativities (atom’s tendency to attract electrons). Also, the structure is bent (not linear). The overall polarity remains because of the arrangement.

As a result, the hydrogens have a slightly positive charge while the oxygen has a slightly negative charge. This makes water become attracted to different types of molecules (especially the ones that have charges in their structure). That’s why water is often called as the universal solvent.

The structure of the water molecule dictated its functions and reactions. What it’s made up of (hydrogen and oxygen) and even its bent nature has something to do with water’s reactivity and usefulness.

Same thing goes to business and work. A typical organization is made up of different people with different roles and skills (our hydrogens and oxygens). Change the roles and the skills required and we end up with an entirely different organization. That’s because our hydrogens and oxygens initially define the organization.

What about the structure? If the water molecule is linear, its polarity won’t exist. It won’t then dissolve many other molecules. This means changing the structure a bit can result to different functions.

The same goes with teams and our work. If we change the structure (who is reporting to whom, who are accountable to the results, etc.), we also change the flow and affect the results. In other words, knowing what something is made up of is not the whole story. We should also understand the overall structure and the interactions among the components.

2. Ideal vs Real Gases

An ideal gas is a theoretical gas. It obeys the Ideal Gas Law and it’s often called a simplified equation of state. The two assumptions about ideal gases are:

  • The molecules of the gas don’t interact with one another (no intermolecular forces)
  • The volume of the molecules themselves are negligible compared to the volume of the container

With those assumptions we can greatly simplify our thinking about the behavior of atoms. We can readily see that in the Ideal Gas Equation:

pV = nRT

p, pressure

V, volume of the container

n, number of moles of gas (sort of amount of particles)

R, gas constant

T, temperature

We can’t see from the equation the effect of repulsive and attractive forces among the molecules. The volume of the molecules themselves are also not part of the equation.

But in lower temperatures and high pressures, those intermolecular forces and the molecules’ volume become significant. Also, even in perfect conditions, the gas molecules also deviate from being ideal.

That’s where a complicated-looking equation comes in (the van der Waals equation):

van der waals equation

This equation better approximates the behavior of real gases. It looks more complicated but it better represents reality.

Both in our personal and professional lives, we often simplify things and concepts. We only have limited time and energy. We also think that a simple model or equation is already enough to explain everything. Well, simple models and equations still work. But not in all cases, especially when we suddenly encounter “deviations.”

Those deviations are actually a natural part of a system. We just didn’t account for them before (or we’re not able to observe them the first time). For example, we’re planning a project (e.g. build a new website). We set the deadline exactly one month from now based on ideal conditions. We think that everything will go smoothly.

But two months passed and the project is still in progress. What happened? That’s because the conditions are actually far from ideal. Delays happen and coordination problems are there. Also, some output are needed before anyone can proceed further. One delay from one aspect of the project will affect the whole.

The real conditions should take into account the possible delays and problems. They’re not actually deviations. They’re just part of the process. If we take them into account, the whole project becomes complicated. But it better represents the reality.

3. Brownian movement

Brownian movement is the random motion of particle/s suspended in a fluid. You might have already seen it when particles of dust just move into different directions while in air. The movement is due to the bombardment or collisions of atoms and molecules to that floating substance.

Brownian movement was named after Robert Brown. When he was studying the phenomenon (1820s), the existence of atoms were not proven yet. It was unknown back then what causes those random movement.

But here comes Albert Einstein. He was able to prove that the the bombardment of atoms to the particle causes the random movement. He even derived the size of atoms from his study of the Brownian movement.

Well, Brownian movement is random motion. But that doesn’t mean there’s no specific cause. The causes may be random also or specific. Whatever the case, when a particle moves, there’s something causing it.

It’s just like the Law of Inertia by Newton: “An object stays at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.” The forces and objects might be invisible and unknown at first. But upon close examination, we recognize those forces. This in turn helps us better analyze the situation.

For example, we think that what goes viral (or what kind of idea spreads and sticks) is just a random thing. But when we look closely, we realize that there’s a pattern. In the book Made to Stick, the authors explained that there are common elements behind ideas that stick. These are Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories (in short, SUCCES).

Well, some viral news and images are hard to explain. They still seem random. But no matter how random they are, we can always determine the things that cause that randomness.

4. Equilibrium

We often think of a chemical reaction as one-way and it’s all forward. But many chemical reactions also actually go the opposite direction. These reactions don’t often finish. They’re dynamic and achieve a state of equilibrium.

When a chemical reaction achieves equilibrium, it means the rate of the forward reaction equals the rate of the reverse reaction. It means both products and reactants are constantly being formed. The concentration of the chemicals remains constant but both the forward and reverse reaction keep on going.

It’s like vertically balancing a long stick with our hand. We need to keep moving and adjusting to keep the stick upright. It’s also like spinning plates on sticks. The plates should keep spinning if we don’t want them to fall off.

The point here is that constant movement is a good way to maintain equilibrium. Albert Einstein even said:

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

If we’re stagnant on our career or business, soon we’ll lose balance. If we always sit tight for over 16 hours a day, we’ll lose balance (health). But if we keep moving, we can maintain the equilibrium.

5. Le Chatelier’s principle

Le Chatelier’s principle states that: When a system at equilibrium is subjected to change in concentration, temperature, volume or pressure, the system readjusts itself to counteract the effect of the applied change. As a result, a new equilibrium is established.

A system will remain at equilibrium if there’s no outside force interfering with it. But if a change is introduced, the system will adjust to establish a new equilibrium.

This similarly happens to us humans especially when our hypothalamus regulates our body temperatures. When we feel hot, our hypothalamus signals our bodies to produce more sweat (when sweat evaporates, it has a cooling effect). When we feel cold, we shiver to create warmth.

All those things happen to counteract the effect of the applied change. Then sooner or later, we’ll experience equilibrium and feel normal again.

Same thing also happens to businesses. Fast growth happens at the start. Then after a few months or years, businesses achieve equilibrium and steady profits. The growth line flattens and there’s not much potential there.

But if the owners and managers adopted a new strategy or launched a new product line, the growth line gets excited again. But after some time, the line flattens again. It achieved a new equilibrium and the process goes on and on.

Whenever we introduce a change, there comes a time when an equilibrium will be established. That’s Le Chatelier’s principle.

6. Buffer

In chemistry, a buffer is a solution that can resist pH change even if you add acid or basic stuff there. Our own blood contains a buffer system to maintain the pH. If our blood goes too acidic or basic, it’s not good. Maintaining the pH is crucial for our blood and cells to perform their function.

How does a buffer solution work? It usually consists of a weak conjugate acid-base pair. For example, the bicarbonate buffer system in our blood consists of H2CO3 and HCO3. When excess base is introduced into our blood, the H2CO3 reacts with the base. If there’s excess acid, the HCO3 takes care of it. This way, our system can still maintain our blood pH.

Buffers can only take limited amounts of excess base or acid. There’s a breaking point. But they’re still useful in preventing drastic pH change.

In businesses, buffers are also used (but in financial form). Financial buffers can help entrepreneurs overcome setbacks even during tough times. Entrepreneurs and managers can still continue running their businesses even if there’s a sudden economic downturn or loss of customers. The extra cash will help them keep going and survive.

Financial buffers, just like buffers in chemistry, also have limits. But they’re still useful in absorbing the effects of downturns and setbacks. They also prevent the businesses from undergoing sudden and drastic change.

7. Activation energy

Activation energy is the minimum energy required for the potential reactants to react with one another. Without that energy, the reaction won’t happen.

The atoms and molecules should be “activated” first before a chemical reaction will occur. It takes a comparably higher energy before the atoms and molecules get activated. But once they reached that state, the reaction goes smooth.

It’s similar to escape velocity, which is the lowest velocity required for an object to escape Earth’s gravity. In space travel, chemical reactions, human achievement, and many other things, there’s always that minimum amount of energy required to get something going.

Also, once the atoms and molecules get activated, it’s almost impossible to stop the reaction from occurring. That’s because they’re in an activated state which is very unstable. They’ll go towards a state with lower energy and greater stability. There’s no other way but to continue and form a product.

The initial step is often the hardest because it takes much courage and energy. It happens especially when we’re taking a new job or project. We are being pushed outside of our comfort zone.

But once we took the first step and gained momentum, it gets easier. We somehow achieve stability and we’re now comfortable doing that thing.

If we can overcome that activation energy and gain some momentum, many tasks and projects will become easier. Once we’re achieving some success, it’s hard to stop. Maybe that’s one reason why the rich gets richer. They’ve already overcome large amounts of activation energy and gained some momentum to the point they’re now unstoppable.

8. Autocatalysis

In chemistry, autocatalysis is a chemical reaction catalyzed by its own products. Here’s an example:

2MnO4 + 6H+ + 5(COOH)2 2Mn2+ + 10CO2 + 8H2O

The reaction is extremely slow at first. But as Mn2+ is produced, it acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction. As more and more products (Mn2+ serving as catalyst) are produced, the reaction gets faster and faster.

The output from the previous cycle is being used to fuel or speed up the next cycle. The previous cycle is painfully slow but because of the output, the next cycle becomes faster. This goes on and on.

It’s the same with things we observe in business and work. Those who have more capital can expand easily. Those who were promoted just recently were also likely to be promoted again. Each dollar we spend on online ads may provide us with 5x return. The profits will then be used to buy more online ads and hence attract more customers.

Social networks also took advantage of autocatalysis. As more users sign up, each of them can let their friends and acquaintances know about the social network. If done right, the growth explodes in a short time.

That’s why startups and established businesses use autocatalysis. They encourage referrals by giving discounts, freebies, or other privileges. Each new member could be a pathway to reaching out to more people.

9. Rate determining step

In chemical kinetics, the rate determining step is the slowest step that determines the overall rate of the chemical reaction. It doesn’t matter how fast all the other steps are. One slow step will determine it all.

For most chemical reactions, a chemical equation doesn’t explain the whole thing. What really happens is that there are intermediate steps before the end products were formed. Let’s look at this example I saw in Khan Academy:

NO2(g) + CO(g) → NO(g) + CO2(g)

is not just a one-step reaction. Here are the possible steps:

NO2 + NO2 NO + NO3 (slow)

NO3 + CO → NO2 + CO2 (fast)

If the first step is far slower than the second, the first step determines the overall rate of the reaction. It doesn’t matter how fast the second step is especially when the numbers are too far off.

In work and business, we call that rate determining step the bottleneck. The neck of the bottle is the narrowest point or the place where resources pile up. No matter how fast the other processes are, the bottleneck will dictate the overall rate of the production.

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There you have it. Those are the mental models I got from chemistry. Many times I think of those lessons when I make decisions or try to learn new things.

I’m still looking for mental models from other fields such as physics, psychology, and biology. I’ll also post them here for everyone to read.