The elements: Exploring every atom in the universe

The beauty and brilliance of the periodic table of elements Photo: Tycho. Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/K.Eriksen et al. Optical: DSS

UNITED KINGDOM, October 3, 2013 — We are a curious species. From ancient times we have attempted to simplify, quantify and explain the complexity of nature, to understand our environment and to make sense of the world around us.

Various cultures, from the Babylonians and Egyptians through India, Greece, China and Japan, came to the same conclusion — that everything around us was comprised of four basic elements: earth, water, air and fire. Sometimes a fifth element, “quintessence” or aether, was added to the mix to account for more difficult concepts, such as the stars.

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This thinking informed the medieval alchemists and persisted through to the Renaissance and beyond. Today those four elements correspond to the four common states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

Naturally occurring elements like gold, silver and copper were known in ancient times, and ores were smelted to produce iron, but in 1649 a German named Hennig Brand was the first to discover a new element while trying to turn base metals into gold by distilling human urine, a glowing white substance he called phosphorus.

In 1661 Robert Boyle defined an element as a substance that cannot be broken down into a simpler substance by a chemical reaction. Since the discovery of subatomic particles, it is perhaps more correct to say that a chemical element consists of one type of atom.

In 1737 the French composer and violinst Jean-Féry Rebel wrote Les élémens describing the creation of the world. Here is an extraordinary performance of his ballet by Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

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In 1789 Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier published the first, very incomplete, list of elements. It would not be until 1869 that Dmitri Mendeleev would make the breakthrough and arrange the elements in a table ordered by atomic number. In his 2010 documentary Chemistry: A Volatile History, Professor Jim Al-Khalili explains how this came about and its significance.

The periodic table is an ingenious and elegant explanation of every atom in the universe. Of the 118 known elements, only 98 are known to occur naturally on Earth, 80 of which are stable and 18 radioactive. The rest have to be produced artificially using nuclear methods. Each element is presented on the table in order of increasing atomic number — the number of protons in the atom’s nucleus — organized by their chemical properties.

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The University of Nottingham has produced a table of videos for each element, as well as a wide array of supplementary videos about new research and the chemistry behind the news. Here is a taste of their work, with clips from each of their 118 element videos in just 10 minutes.

The periodic table has been added to over the years, with new elements, predicted by Mendeleev, being discovered to fill in the gaps. Here the ever enthusiastic Professor Martyn Poliakoff, CBE, of the University of Nottingham’s Periodic Table of Videos team, explains the latest element to be confirmed, Element 115, known as Ununpentium.

The periodic table is a blueprint for the ingredients of everything, even you! Here Carl Sagan (again, I know, I am a self confessed fan-girl) lays out the chemical components to build a caterpillar or a petunia (oh no not again) or even a human being.

If only it were that simple, or even as simple as this scene from James Whales’ 1931 classic film of Frankenstein. This is still my preferred method to greet my son when he wakes up.

The vast majority of matter is made up of just the first two elements on the periodic table, hydrogen and helium, which along with lithium, beryllium and boron, formed in the first 20 minutes after the Big Bang. All the rest of the heavier elements account for only around 2 percent of the universe.

Where did these elements come from? I’ll let the folks at Sixty Symbols (another University of Nottingham project ) explain the way that elements are created in the hearts of stars and supernovae.

Finally, here are all of the elements presented in a new song, in the order in which they appear on the periodic table. I expect you all to have this memorized by next week.

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Jenny Winder

Jenny Winder is a British science writer for SEN - the Space Exploration Network,  specialising in astronomy, physics and space exploration.

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