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Elementary my dear...

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By Jackie Beedie


This year the periodic table is 150 years old. There were a few versions of it published in the nineteenth century before the one we know today was put together and published by Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev in 1969, for which he was rewarded by having an element named after him. mendelevium (Md) atomic number 101.

When Mendeleev put together his periodic table there were only about 60 elements known. The current figure is 118. His genius was that he understood that there were other elements so far undiscovered and he was able to calculate where some of them would go, and so he left gaps in his table that could be added into when more elements were found.

Each chemical element has a unique atomic number which represents the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom. So hydrogen has one proton and the atomic number 1 and oganesson (Og) which was only officially named in 2016 has an atomic number of 118. All other elements that make up life, the universe, and everything fall in between these. Carbon being 6 and oxygen being 8.

So the whole of the cosmos can literally be broken down into these component parts. Yes us as well. No matter if you’re black, white, red or yellow it’s all the same stuff. It is estimated that there are 7 x 1027 atoms in an average human body, that’s 70 followed by 27 zeroes and that is a big number. Another big number is a Googol which is 1 x 10100 or 10 followed by a hundred zeros. That is a bigger number than all the atoms in the universe about 1 x 1083.

It just highlights that counting numbers goes onto infinity because if you were to count up to a googol it would take you 1.6 x 1092 years and to put that in context the big bang happened only 1.38 x 109 years ago. So when you had lived longer than Methuselah and had got to the end of your counting someone goes and adds a 1. And yes, the most popular internet search engine is named after it.

Mathematics, chemistry and physics can be so much fun at times but if we go back to the periodic table we see that gold is named Au and not G. This is because the Latin word for gold is aurum. The same for tungsten (W) which is wolfram, lead (Pb) plumbum. And where we also get the plumber from and mercury (Hg) hydrargyrum.

More recently discovered elements tend to be named after their discoverers or other famous scientists. Einstienium (Es) is named after Albert and Alfred gave his name to Nobelium (No). Neither of these august gentlemen discovered these elements, but such was their contribution to science that it was felt to be a suitable recognition.

There are even some chemistry jokes, but all the good ones argon, and if you kill a chemist for telling a bad joke then you have to barium. I’ll stop there because I think I am getting out of my element.

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