Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Element of the Month: Oxygen!

June's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 15.9994 amu
Melting Point: -218.4 °C
Boiling Point: -183.0 °C

Oxygen is the third most common element in the universe. It's the second most common element in the Earth's atmosphere and, as you know, the component of air that makes it work for you. You need it. You need it bad. Almost every molecule in your body needs it to function, and you have an elaborate system of interlinked pumps to retrieve it and distribute it throughout that gorgeous frame of yours. If you've been taking oxygen for granted lately, hold your breath for 30 seconds and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Oxygen is also the most common element in the Earth's crust, which might be a little counterintuitive because, hey, isn't it a gas? Sure, but it's a very reactive gas, always combining with other elements or groups of elements to form the solid compounds we think of as "rocks" and "dirt" and such. But it its pure form, at anything like room temperature, it's your basic colorless gas. Heck, making up so much of the atmosphere, it has to be colorless, right? We wouldn't have evolved a visual system that perceived oxygen as having a color, because if we had we wouldn't be able to see anything through the pink (or whatever) murk. Maybe to a critter from a oxygen-free atmosphere, the stuff looks fire-engine red. But for practical purposes, such questions can be left to phenomenological philosophers and stoners.

The Centerfold!

Now, we think of oxygen as being pretty important to sustaining life, which is reasonable in that it's so important in sustaining OUR lives. But I guess oxygen was actually quite toxic to the first wave of life on earth, and when it started building up in the atmosphere there were massive global die-offs of anaerobic life forms. After that, aerobic life forms like us prevailed for the most part, although a few "obligate anaerobes" still hang out in soil and other niches. Just bacteria, as far as I can tell.

Oxygen is more expensive than you'd think, so if you need some I suggest you just cut an electrical cord off an old appliance and bare each of the two wires. Get a big bucket of water and two quart yoghurt containers or something. Put the containers in the bucket, fill them with water, and turn them upside down. Put one of the wires in one container and the other in the other. Drying off your hands and standing well away from the bucket, plug in the cord! There will be a great deal of bubbling, and the yoghurt containers will fill with gas released from the bare wires. The one that has twice as much "air" in it, that one is hydrogen. The other one is your oxygen. Enjoy! And make sure your mom doesn't find out.

Truth is, you don't really want to mess with pure oxygen. Things can burn pretty briskly in the regular atmosphere, which has lots of neutral nitrogen in it to slow reactions down. In pure oxygen, not only will things burn explosively, but things will burn that you don't normally think of as flamable. Like, steel. Also, if you breathe it in too pure a form, you can experience icky "oxygen toxicity" effects. So just enjoy it in the usual nitrogen-oxygen-argon cocktail, and you'll be in like Flynn.


Jenners said...

I'm pretty sure your little experiment could end in fatalities.

Aviatrix said...

I'm not sure how to tell the difference between phenomenological philosophers and stoners, but I know another way to distinguish between hydrogen and oxygen. Light a stick on fire, and then shake it out so it's glowing slightly. If you put it in a test tube full of oxygen it will flare up and burn. If you put it in a test tube full of hydrogen there will be an audible pop.

Who is Flynn?

UnwiseOwl said...

Errol Flynn, Australian hero of the silver screen, whose all around popularity in general and anatomical size in particular made him famously 'in' during the 1930's and 1940's.

Whoo for Australians.

Michael5000 said...

Jenners: Oh sure, it COULD. But ~I~ survived to adulthood!