Friday, May 10, 2013

May's Element of the Month: Hydrogen!

May's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 1.008 amu
Melting Point: -259.14 °C
Boiling Point: -252.87 °C

When they put those plaques on our space probes, they included a pulsar map and a schematic of the then nine-planet solar system to show where they were launched from, a line drawing of a human couple to show how good-looking we are, and a diagram of hydrogen to show that we were smart enough to figure out what the universe is made out of. Or, rather, what that slim proportion of the weird and wonderful universe that we generally think of as ordinary "matter" is made out of. Mostly, hydrogen!

Even as the lightest element -- an atom of Hydrogen has only about a quarter the mass of an atom of the next slimmest Element, Helium -- Hydrogen still represents a whopping 74% of all atomic matter by mass. Because I know you're curious, the second spot is held by Helium with 24%. Half of the remaining 2% is Oxygen.  After that, half of the remaining 1% is Carbon, followed by Neon(!), Iron, Nitrogen, and increasingly trace amounts of everything else.

If you want to bring Hydrogen down a peg, remind it that in our current conception of the universe, atomic matter only constitutes about 15% of the universe's mass (the rest being dark matter, whatever the hell THAT is) and so Hydrogen is actually less than 8% of all-that-is. For that matter -- ha! -- we've long since understood that matter and energy are interchangeable, right, Einstein? So since there's heaps and heaps of energy out there in the "void," Hydrogen starts to shrink into virtual insignificance.

The Centerfold!

A bottle of Hydrogen
If you happen to live on a, shall we say, more Newtonian scale, Hydrogen once more becomes pretty key. We love the way that, under the colossal pressure of its own gravity, the Hydrogen in the sun fuses into Helium in an ongoing process of thermonuclear fusion. Energy surges outwards from the sun's core toward the surface, but any given unit of energy takes tens of thousands of years to get there, bouncing hither and yon in random directions through the solar atmosphere; once off the surface, though, the light and heat picks up speed and reaches the Earth in a brisk 8 minutes 19 seconds, where it provides the energy that underlies virtually all life on earth, plus makes for awesome spring afternoons.

Then there's water, which as you know is two parts Hydrogen to one part Oxygen. You yourself are largely water, of course, and you depend on vast amounts of it to drink, cook in, bathe in, move your excreta along, and to support the manifold industrial processes that make the stuff and power that support your way of life. Your town was built where it was because water made it an advantageous location, either by its availability for agricultural use or, more likely, by its shaping of transportation routes. Something of a miracle substance, water expands when it freezes, an unusual characteristic which, if it were not so, would pretty much render Earth a barren frozen waste. The capture of energy during evaporation and its release during condensation keeps the Equatorial zones cool enough to not be immediately lethal, and the upper latitudes warm enough to to be the same. What would we do without dihydrogen oxide?

Indeed, as a living entity you are indebted to the chemical proclivities of Hydrogen for much if not most of your function. Sure, you're "carbon-based," but carbon all by its lonesome can't sustain the chemical dance of life. It's only when carbon teams up with Hydrogen, as well as Oxygen and Nitrogen and perhaps Potassium and Sulfur, that biological processes are really, as they say, "cooking with gas." "Gas," incidentally, is four hydrogen molecules linked to a Carbon molecule. You just can't get away from Hydrogen.  Stop trying.

Henry Cavendish is usually given the nod for having discovered Hydrogen in 1766, although he called it "flamable air" and thought he had isolated phlogiston. It was only in 1783 that Antoine Lavoisier correctly identified the stuff as "Hydrogen," by doing several clever and important experiments in addition to coming up with a catchy name that stuck. Lavoisier is often called the "Father of Modern Chemistry," but a life packed full of scientific achievement was cut short at 50 when he was pointlessly guillotined in the French Revolution. Cavendish lived to be almost 80 and was among the richest men in the world when he died, but he was a deeply asocial recluse and kept many of his most important findings under wraps; his private papers have been found to anticipate many later discoveries in chemistry and physics. Take your pick.  Two different lives, each curtailed in its own way, but unified by shared work in the discovery of Hydrogen and by being, like you and I, in a sense merely the expression in time-space of complex chemical reactions fired largely by... Hydrogen.


Dug said...

Very well researched and presented. Perhaps when all the elements have been covered you could compile them into a short snappy textbook for tomorrow's AP Chemistry students and others who just dig the subject. You'll need some hydrogen to do that but apparently there's lots of the stuff.

gl. said...

love how this became a post about rival scientists. how do you feel about the tesla/edison friction?

Michael5000 said...

My feeling is that anything that went on in Tesla's and Einstein's personal life was strictly their own business.

gl. said...

um. what? i was thinking of this:

Michael5000 said...

Misread "Edison" for "Einstein" in my haste for a salty riposte! I too dislike Edison viscerally, for yet other reasons than Mr. Oatmeal cited; yet also feel that there is value not only in coming up with the tech, but also hustling it into use. Ol' Cavendish was a smart geek, but he could have been a little more of a team player, if you follow me; from what I've read of Tesla, much of his inventiveness would have been lost to the aether (ha!) if he hadn't been surrounded by practically minded opportunists.