6/9/10 - the elements

In today's excerpt - the elements. At one point, aluminum was considered more rare and precious than silver:

"There are ninety-two naturally occurring elements on Earth, plus a further twenty or so that have been created in labs, but some of these we can immediately put to one side—as, in fact, chemists themselves tend to do. Not a few of our earthly chemicals are surprisingly little known. Astatine, for instance, is practically unstudied. It has a name and a place on the periodic table (next door to Marie Curie's polonium), but almost nothing else. The problem isn't scientific indifference, but rarity. There just isn't much astatine out there. The most elusive element of all, however, appears to be francium, which is so rare that it is thought that our entire planet may contain, at any given moment, fewer than twenty francium atoms. Altogether only about thirty of the naturally occurring elements are widespread on Earth, and barely half a dozen are of central importance to life.

"As you might expect, oxygen is our most abundant element, accounting for just under 50 percent of the Earth's crust, but after that the relative abundances are often surprising. Who would guess, for instance, that silicon is the second most common element on Earth or that titanium is tenth? Abundance has little to do with their familiarity or utility to us. Many of the more obscure elements are actually more common than the better-known ones. There is more cerium on Earth than copper, more neodymium and lanthanum than cobalt or nitrogen. Tin barely makes it into the top fifty, eclipsed by such relative obscurities as praseodymium, samarium, gadolinium, and dysprosium.

"Abundance also has little to do with ease of detection. Aluminum is the fourth most common element on Earth, accounting for nearly a tenth of everything that's underneath your feet, but its existence wasn't even suspected until it was discovered in the nineteenth century by Humphry Davy, and for a long time after that it was treated as rare and precious. Congress nearly put a shiny lining of aluminum foil atop the Washington Monument to show what a classy and prosperous nation we had become, and the French imperial family in the same period discarded the state silver dinner service and replaced it with an aluminum one. The fashion was cutting edge even if the knives weren't.

"Nor does abundance necessarily relate to importance. Carbon is only the fifteenth most common element, accounting for a very modest 0.048 percent of Earth's crust, but we would be lost without it. What sets the carbon atom apart is that it is shamelessly promiscuous. It is the party animal of the atomic world, latching on to many other atoms (including itself) and holding tight, forming molecular conga lines of hearty robustness—the very trick of nature necessary to build proteins and DNA. As Paul Davies has written: 'If it wasn't for carbon, life as we know it would be impossible. Probably any sort of life would be impossible. 'Yet carbon is not all that plentiful even in humans, who so totally depend on it. Of every 200 atoms in your body, 126 are hydrogen, 51 are oxygen, and just 19 are carbon."


Bill Bryson


A Short History of Nearly Everything


Anchor Canada a division of Random House of Canada Ltd.


Copyright 2003 by Bill Bryson


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