Chemistry

Sir Ernest Rutherford once said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

That was a century ago, at a time when chemistry and biology were largely ‘catalog’ sciences—in many parts of the world they still are, whereas in the Western World, a systems approach is now the standard.

But Rutherford also said, “When we have found how the nucleus of atoms is built up we shall have found the greatest secret of all — except life.”

Those last two words destroy his previous aphorism—physics tells us how things work, chemistry tells us their composition, and biology separates life from death.

A further blow to Rutherford’s views was delivered by the Swedish Academy in 1908, when they awarded him the Nobel Prize for… chemistry.

The fact is that physics has less building blocks than both chemistry and biology, which probably explains why so much inventory was required to bring these two subjects to their present state.

The Linnaean classification system, despite its faults, was a watershed moment in biology—the fact that it was developed almost three hundred years ago is astonishing—it ushered in ecology, evolutionary theory, and genetics.

This means you can now get a full sequence of your genome for one thousand dollars, down from over one hundred million in 2001.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a Russian chemistry professor called Dmitri Mendeleev decided the way chemistry was taught was incorrect, and he formulated a better way—in so doing, he came up with the periodic table of elements.

When you look the man up on Wikipedia, the first line states, ‘Not to be confused with Dmitry Medvedev’. I should certainly hope not! Medvedev, or bear in Russian, was of course the man who did Putin the favor of allowing him multiple terms as president of the Russian Federation.

Mendeleev did his Ph.D. ‘On the Combinations of Water with Alcohol’, a subject which is very dear to my heart. He found that a 46% mass fraction of alcohol causes the maximum decrease of volume—this is typically the strength of highest quality vodka, but of course the beverage preceded the great chemist by at least five centuries.

One of the consequences of the periodic table, much like the Linnaean classification, was the transformation of chaos into order, a situation that is thermodynamically unstable—desks never tidy themselves.

The readiness of sodium to react with chlorine, or potassium with iodine, became obvious when you realized you were adding columns 1 and 7 of the table to obtain the full complement of 8. And the fact that carbon, silicon, and germanium live in column 4 reveals much about in vivo and in silico.

Yes, right there in the highly reactive center of the table, its genitals, if you will, sit all the elements that give us life—carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

A graphic from Bloomberg Businessweek, from this week’s issue exclusively dedicated to the periodic table.

One of the astonishing developments of the last fifty years is the use of obscure elements from the periodic table for a multitude of uses. The last century belonged to the internal combustion engine, we are now in the age of the battery. Ubiquitous in cars, laptops, and cellphones, hidden in appliances throughout my house, the battery requires, or will require in the near future, hydrogen, lithium, nickel, cobalt, zinc, and lead.

A raft of other metals, including ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium, drive the commodities markets crazy. Ruthenium, for example, was used in hard disk storage in the early years of this century, and spiked to 800 dollars per ounce in 2003-2004. After a crash, it now sits at $200 or so.

Rhodium was used in automobile catalytic converters, tumbled during the financial crash, and is now showing timid signs of recovery.

Rhodium, number 45 in the table, is a price rock ‘n roller.

One thing strikes you about any of these graphs—it’s much harder to climb the mountain than fall off the cliff.

Humans have found uses—often in highly sophisticated applications—for many of the elements that Mendeleev organized. Some of these elements are increasingly scarce, including helium, the second lightest element.

Helium is used in many applications, including MRI machines, and in a few decades, it will be in short supply. This is one of the paradoxes of the table as we move through the century: new scientific discoveries find more uses for obscure substances, but material scarcity moves them further from markets.

We’ve come a long way since Rutherford. The great man once said “An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.”

Atomic structure? I can think of far more interesting conversations to have with an attractive young lady dispensing my favorite libation, but the man had a point.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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