Cumberland Times-News

Columns

December 21, 2013

Life on earth relies on several elements

One of the most important words in science is “element.” For thousands of years, the recognized elements were air, fire, water, earth and quintessence.

Aristotle, the most important scientist of ancient Greece developed his list based on natural motion.

If an object tended to rise, (such as smoke), it was made of air and/or fire. But if an object tended to fall, it was made of Earth, water or some combination of these two elements.

The fifth element, quintessence was reserved for the heavenly bodies, which moved in circular paths across the sky.

Quintessence was an eternal element; any bodies made of it would never deteriorate nor show any signs of imperfection. So the sun and moon were made of quintessence and had to be flawless.

During the Renaissance, scientists began to question Aristotle’s ideas. Telescopic observations showed the moon to a rugged world with many craters, mountains and flat plains; the sun was scarred by dark blotches (sunspots), that arose and then faded away weeks or months later.

The first scientist to redefine “element” was Robert Boyle. With the advent of modern chemistry in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the idea of atoms was revived. Several dozen elements were identified.

An element was regarded as an atom, the smallest unit of matter that retained its chemical properties. Many elements tended to combine with other elements to make compounds (Water or H2O has two hydrogen atoms attached to one oxygen atom).

Using electricity or heat, many compounds could be broken down into separate elements.

Today, an element is an atom with a certain number of protons in its nucleus or center. The nucleus is about 1/20,000 the width of the atom itself. But the nucleus contains all the positive charges (protons) and nearly all the mass of an atom.

Most of an atom’s volume is in its electron cloud, containing tiny negative particles that circulate about the nucleus. If the nucleus is expanded to the size of a pea, the electron cloud would be a sports area (like Oriole Park in Baltimore).

The chemical properties of an element are determined by the number of outer electrons. Most elements’ outer electron shell can hold eight electrons. If an element has three or fewer outer electrons, the element is a metal. But if an element has four or more outer electrons, it is a non-metal.

Metals tend to give away their outer electrons while non-metals seek more electrons to fill their outer shells. The elements with filled outer shells (helium, argon, neon, xenon) seldom react chemically and are called Noble Gases.

Life on Earth relies heavily on a dozen or so elements. These elements of life are the lightest elements and quite abundant in the Earth’s crust. Since life likely arose in the waters of the Earth, most life forms contain a fair portion of water, making hydrogen the most abundant element in our bodies.

Hydrogen is also the most abundant element in the universe with most stars being largely hydrogen.

The second most abundant element in life forms is oxygen, combined either with water or circulating as a molecule with two oxygen atoms bonded together.

In third place is carbon, whose exceptional combining properties makes carbon the architect of life with a huge number of carbon containing compounds in our bodies, plants and animals.

In fourth place is nitrogen, essential for building proteins. Another key element is iron, which latches onto oxygen in the molecule hemoglobin.

Our bones and teeth rely on calcium and phosphorus, a metal and non-metal. Sodium, potassium and chlorine are present in our body fluids to allow our nerves to transmit electrical signals.

Besides the key body elements, our technology also relies heavily on silicon, copper, aluminum and manganese.

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: In this first week of winter, Venus drifts lower in the western twilight as her setting time drops from 7:10 p.m. to 6:35 p.m.

The planet Jupiter rises in the east before Venus sets. With flat east and west horizons, you may be able to glimpse them both about 6:45 p.m.

This Tuesday, the moon will be rising about midnight and is best seen in the morning predawn sky. My next column will list the best sights for 2014, including two lunar eclipses (mid-April and early October.)

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.

1
Text Only
Columns
  • We concur We concur

    We’re certain that Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, echoes what many Americans feel about the complexity of filing income tax returns.
    When he filed his return, Rumsfeld sent the following letter to the Internal Revenue Service:

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Library week

    Public libraries remain one of the best uses of taxpayer dollars. They are open to all. Young or old, poor or wealthy, residents can use computers and read current magazines and newspapers. Compact discs featuring a wide variety of music and
    movies on DVD may be checked out in addition to novels and other books.

    April 13, 2014

  • Terps need to move and move quickly

    The good news is Maryland will never have to play another basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Goodbye, good riddance, sayonara, smell ya, no more of you, stay classy, we won’t let the door hit us on the way out.
    Until we see you in court.

    April 13, 2014

  • Sunday hunting Sunday hunting

    Legislation that increases hunting oppportunities on Sundays in Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties has passed the Maryland General Assembly and reached the governor’s desk.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • You’ll never guess who the real hero was (He was six feet tall and bulletproof)

    Most folks know about the 20th Maine’s bayonet charge that repulsed the Rebels at Little Round Top because they watched the movie, “Gettysburg.”
    Capt. Gary and First Sgt. Goldy post ourselves a hundred yards or so away from where it happened in real life. Tourists frequently ask us how to find it.

    April 13, 2014

  • Early morning lunar eclipse this Tuesday

    For the first time since 2011, our area may see a total lunar eclipse as the moon will pass through the Earth’s deep shadow.

    April 13, 2014

  • Big bucks How many deer on Green Ridge?

    A study completed in 2013 by a master’s degree candidate at the University of Delaware showed that there are 20 to 30 deer per square mile on the Green Ridge State Forest, including some pretty darn nice bucks.

    April 12, 2014 1 Photo

  • Then again, he’s manager of the Yankees, and I’m not

    I went to bed confused Wednesday night, which in itself is nothing new. But having
    watched most of the Orioles-Yankees game, including the final three innings, earlier
    in the evening, then watching the late Baseball Tonight before I turned in, I was under the impression that the Yankees had won the game when I was pretty sure before watching the show that the Orioles had won.

    April 11, 2014

  • Who knows how many times she poisoned him?

    My dad used to say that if tobacco and coffee tasted as good as they smelled, the world would be a better place.

    April 5, 2014

  • Rusty writes about the nature of doghood

    I am a dog.
    Therefore I bark.
    I don’t understand why it is so hard for humans to understand this.
    I mean, there are certain things that come with the territory, right?

    April 5, 2014