The periodic table of elements… if you are still reading this I am pleasantly surprised! Ever since high school chemistry, the periodic table of elements has become taboo mixed with unpleasant recollections of memorizing each element along with its (sometimes perplexing) atomic symbol. Well, now that I have the worst part out of the way, I wanted to introduce a new writing segment for my blog: Periodic Players. Don’t worry, you won’t need to memorize the element’s location on the table or calculate the number of valence electrons each element contains. Just sit back and enjoy as I break the periodic table apart and take a closer look at some of the more interesting and applicable elements that we may take for granted. Multiple elements within the periodic table of elements play a major, yet seemingly invisible, role in our lives. Some of these players in the periodic table are dangerous, some are useful, some are even necessary for life. This week’s periodic player, Oxygen, happens to be dangerous, useful, and necessary for life!
Oxygen is a very aggressive and dangerous element. If Oxygen were a player on a basketball team, he would be the high energy player that goes after every loose ball, diving on the floor, and sticking to his man on defense like glue. Oxygen is so aggressive because of the electrons present in its outer electron shell. Oxygen desperately wants to fill its outer electron shell, but to do that it needs two more electrons. An element with only part of its electron shell filled is like walking around with only one sock on. It’s zipping around like crazy trying to react with all sorts of things to get that second sock, oops I mean to get those last two electrons in its outer shell. Metals are some of its favorite things to bump into and snag some electrons. That is why metals rust in the presence of oxygen, and some softer metals will even react explosively in the presence of oxygen. Wildfires, a very destructive natural disaster, requires a steady flow of oxygen from the air for it to continue its ruination.
That same oxygen atom that can cause so much destruction is also a necessary component for life on this Earth. Not only is it a constituent of DNA, the blueprint of life, but it also accounts for 61% of the mass of a human. Oxygen, in its stable gas form, is breathed in by almost all living things on this planet. Our bodies need oxygen to create energy and to sustain our bodily functions. The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our lungs is a vital part of life, in fact we would die within minutes if that gas exchange did not occur. Plant life help other forms of life exist as they give off oxygen gas as part their food-creating process known as photosynthesis. The fossil record helps us understand that some of the earliest forms of microbial life required water (a mixture of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom) and oxygen gas from the atmosphere to live. The fossil record also shows that increased oxygen levels in Earth’s past may have caused animals and insects to be bigger. One fossil of an ancient dragonfly shows that it had a wingspan similar to a crow’s!
So oxygen can be dangerous, yet life-sustaining as well… But did you know it is also a required element for beautiful minerals and useful building materials? Elemental silicon, by itself, is simply a dull silvery-grey metal. But add a couple of oxygen atoms to silicon and you get a beautiful silicate mineral like quartz as pictured above. The kings and queens of old have oxygen to thank for their crown jewels as well, elemental oxygen transforms aluminum metal into precious gems like ruby and sapphire. Oxygen has had many industrial uses for human beings as well. We need quartz, which oxygen is apart of, for the creation of cell phones, televisions, computers, and radios. We also use oxygen in the making of steel. Glass and Sheetrock also contain our periodic player, oxygen. Beautiful building stones like Granite rock can contain minerals like quartz which is composed of oxygen.
There are many periodic players. But oxygen is one of my favorites. What a dynamic player. Oxygen is required to sustain life on this earth, it can be an invisible fuel for fiery destruction, or it can be the main component of the solvent of life known as water, and let’s not forget about its ability to transform dull metals into beautiful and useful rocks and minerals. Next time you take in a deep breath, or drink an ice cold glass of water, or lean against your lovely granite counter-tops, or sit in front of a warm campfire, be sure to pay homage to the incredible element oxygen.
If you read this whole blog post, you are my hero! Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave me a comment and feedback below. Also, let me know if there is any particular science topic you would like me to look at “through green tinted glasses” and I will write about it.