Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Quote: Theodore Gray

I have been enthralled of late with a big coffee table book called The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, which I think should be installed in every chemistry class. It's got amazing pictures, and I'm learning all sorts of cool random stuff. I'm learning to distinguish the colors of light from the different noble gases. I've learned that cesium explodes on contact with skin (and most other things). I've learned that oxygen is a beautiful blue liquid at -183° C. Who knew?

And the writing is lighthearted and entertaining.

    "If carbon (6) is the foundation of life, then oxygen is the fuel. Oxygen's ability to react with just about any organic compound is what drives the processes of life. Combustion with oxygen also drives your car, your furnace, and if you work for NASA, your rockets. (Actually, the term "fuel" usually refers to the thing that is burned by an "oxidizer," so I'm speaking metaphorically when I say oxygen is the fuel of life. Technically speaking, oxygen is the oxidizer of life.)"

More on cesium and its fellow alkali metals:

    "The other elements of the first column, not counting hydrogen, are called the alkali metals, and they are all fun to throw into a lake. Alkali metals react with water to release hydrogen gas, which is highly flammable. When you throw a large enough lump of sodium into a lake, the result is a huge explosion a few seconds later. Depending on whether you took the right precautions, this is either a thrilling and beautiful experience or the end of your life as you have known it when molten sodium sprays into your eyes, permanently blinding you.
    "Chemistry is a bit like that: powerful enough to do great things in the world, but also dangerous enough to do terrible things just as easily. If you don't respect it, chemistry bites."

At the end of the introduction, Gray sums up the universe:

    "This is all there is. From here to Timbuktu, and including Timbuktu, everything everywhere is made of one or more of these elements. The infinite variety of combinations and recombinations that we call chemistry starts and ends with this short and memorable list, the building blocks of the physical world.
    "Almost everything you see in this book is sitting somewhere in my office, except that one thing the FBI confiscated and a few historical objects. I had a great time collecting these examples of the vibrant diversity of the elements, and I hope you have as much fun reading about them."

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