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Elementary, My Dear …

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By Priscilla Long


 

The universe began with three elements—hydrogen, helium, and a bit of lithium. This was before the pharmaceuticals existed to package lithium into a pill. And it’s as elementary as we are going to get. It is more elementary, my dear Watson, than fire, water, earth, and air, the elements according to the ancient Greeks.

In the beginning was the Big Bang. This occurred some 14 billion years ago. Our universe began. It had a beginning. And it comprised the aforementioned hydrogen and helium salted with lithium.

The Big Bang began the universal expansion that continues as we speak. Our economy seems to be shrinking, but the universe is expanding. The number of species on earth is shrinking (by probably 100 per day), but the universe is expanding. The population of Michigan is shrinking. The universe is expanding.

In the nuclear furnace of forming suns (hydrogen burning into helium), the other elements were made. Later they were discovered and arranged into the table of elements. There are 118 naturally occurring elements, and they are placed on the table according to number of protons found in the nucleus of each atom of the element. (The proton count gives the atom its atomic number.) The protons, positively charged, determine how many negatively charged electrons spin around this same nucleus. So, hydrogen has one proton (and one electron). Helium has two protons (and two electrons). Lithium has three. Carbon, which concerns us greatly because it is the one element quintessential to all life, has six protons. Oxygen has eight.

Atoms also have neutrons, which consort with protons in the nucleus. Due to an occasional extra neutron, an element’s atomic weight can vary from atom to atom. Because of these isotopes (the same atoms with different numbers of neutrons), chemists are currently revising atomic weights to reflect a range rather than a single number as in the past.

I am gazing at a luscious book, The Elements by Theodore Gray. The Elements has set me to thinking about elements. Calcium, with its 20 protons, is an element. So is iron, the element of blood. Elemental also are tin, copper, arsenic, nickel, silver, and gold. So are onions (think odor of sulfur), diamonds (made up of carbon atoms), and bananas (well, potassium). And there are other elements, less familiar. One is er … erbium (atomic number 68). Erbium may be found in fiber optic cables, where it amplifies a pulse of light all by itself. That is, erbium, laser-infused with extra electrons, hangs on to those extra electrons until a beam of light passes through, at which instant the erbium releases them to the light wave. It is like pouring a child a glass of milk whereupon, like magic, a second glass of milk appears.

Of course new elements can be added. If you could get 150 protons to crowd into the center of an atom with, then, 150 electrons whirling about outside, you’ve got yourself a new element. Call it sesquicentennium. It would be good for nothing, but worth a celebration.

All this brings me to our real new element. I speak as a Seattleite. It is widely occurring, at least around here. It is black and, like carbon, essential for life. It should be added to the table. I mean, of course, espresso.

Priscilla Long is the author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life and Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. Her essay “Genome Tome,” which appeared in our Summer 2005 issue, won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.


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