Saturday, September 21, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 11

Fearless got a bit behind his time and is late getting to number 11 in his waltz through the elements of the periodic table, but here he is anyway…


Young chemistry students always seem to scratch their heads about this element.  How in heaven’s name does “Sodium” end up with the chemical symbol, “Na?”  It goes back to the discovery of the element.  Sir Humphry Davy was fooling around with electricity and caustic soda (what we know today to be sodium hydroxide).  He ended up with elemental sodium, and since it was derived from caustic soda, he thought, “well…soda…sodium.”  Not in those words (19th century England being a time of much more flowery prose), but that’s the gist of it.

Ah, but not so fast.  We had a new element, but we did not have a chemical symbol for it.  Six years after Davy’s discovery, Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius (you knew a Swede would show up sooner or later) got in the game.  Let’s follow along with this United Nations of naming process.  Berzelius (the Swede) took Davy’s discovery (he being the Englishman) and published a new system of atomic symbols in the “Annals of Philosophy,” a publication by Thomas Thomson (a Scottish chemist).  Among the symbols, Berzelius chose “Na” for sodium from the Latin word, “natrium,” which meant, well…”sodium.”

It was a lot of effort for what is a soft, silver-white, highly reactive metal that does not occur as a free metal in nature (it’s too reactive).  It does occur in a variety of compounds.  The aforementioned “caustic soda” – or “lye,” used in everything from soap-making to food preparation (the Scandanavian delicacy “lutefisk,” for example).  Sodium carbonate is used in glass manufacture.  Sodium peroxide is used to bleach wood pulp in paper manufacturing.  Sodium nitrate is used in fertilizers and in the manufacture of gunpowder.  Sodium nitrite is used to make dyes and acts as a corrosion inhibitor.  And of course, there is sodium chloride, which we know as common table salt.

In biology it acts as a fluid regulator, and important element in regulating blood pressure, blood volume, osmotic equilibrium (no net movement of fluid across membranes), and acidity.  In some plants it contributes to metabolism and regulates the uptake of water.

Sodium is one of those elements for which care must be taken in handling.  Exposed to air it will spontaneously react with water vapor to generate flammable hydrogen and sodium hydroxide – that caustic soda again.  In its powered form it will explode spontaneously in the presence of oxygen.  Moral…leave handling of sodium to the professionals.

So there it is, a common and very important element that can be found in nature in any number of important and useful combinations.  Discovered in Europe with a Swedish connection.  Reacts readily in the presence of water (maybe even ice).  Critical in life processes.  It might sound a bit like a center who, as a playmaker, reacts with a number of teammates to generate offense.  An important ingredient in any number of situations – 5-on-5, power play, penalty killing.  One from and discovered in Sweden.

Sodium… the “Nicklas Backstrom” of elements of the periodic table.

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