Just consider what happens when you seal dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) in a bottle and submerge it in hot water. Via a process known as sublimation, the dry ice turns into gaseous carbon dioxide, and before you know it, well, just have a look at the gif below and see for yourself what happens (probably best not to try this at home).
And what happens if you take a stick and lightly tap a piece of filter paper that contains traces of nitrogen triiodide? The bulky iodine atoms rapidly separate from the nitrogen atoms to which they're bonded. It's a matter of sterics, a term chemists use to describe the ways in which the size and shape of atoms in a molecule affect molecular behavior.
"Bulky groups of atoms tend to ‘get in the way’ of other atoms, preventing certain motions or reactions," Dr. Daniel Turner, assistant professor of chemistry at New York University, told The Huffington Post in an email. "The nitrogen triiode example illustrates, in dramatic fashion, the effect of sterics on structural instability. The iodine atoms are sort of pushing each other away."
If you'd rather see what happens than take Turner at his word, the gif below shows the violent liberation of purplish iodine (again, probably best not to try this little experiment yourself).
Those demonstrations are just a couple of the fun things you can do in a chemistry lab--not that such experiments are done just for yucks. Chemistry instructors like Turner and the instructors who trained him have used these demonstrations as teaching tools, knowing that drama can help students remember important concepts.
"I still remember most of the explosions and other demos I saw as an undergrad," Turner said in the email.
Recently, Turner and one of his Ph.D. students, Tobias Gellen, invited The Huffington Post into his gleaming lab in a building just off New York City's Washington Square Park to demonstrate the dry ice and nitrogen triiodide whoop-de-do's--plus the so-called Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. It doesn't produce an explosion, but it does cause, well, just look at what's going on surrounding that twisted silver wire in the dish below (it's been sped up).
Turner called the BZ reaction "a classic example of non-equilibrium thermodynamics...It demonstrates oscillatory kinetics resulting from nonlinear dynamic behavior."
Got that? Oh well. Even if you can't understand why those oscillating rings form--or why that dry ice bomb and the nitrogen triiode blow up--chemistry really is a blast!