Monday, September 23, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 8

We’re down to number 8 in Fearless’ look at the elements of the periodic table (he skipped number 9…Cheerless kept yammering about being anti-fluoridation or some such thing), which means we are down to…


Most of what you are is oxygen.  We do not mean in some metaphysical sense, that oxygen feeds your soul or something. No, most of what you are in the physical sense is oxygen, because it binds with hydrogen, producing water.  Water comprises most of the mass of living organisms.  It is that ubiquitous, that necessary for life processes.

When it is not cozying up to hydrogen to form water molecules, it exists naturally as a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas.  But if you think those qualities make it dull and lifeless, well…

It’s in the name.  “Oxygen” comes from two Greek words – “oxys,” meaning “acid,” and “genes,” meaning “producer.”  But we get ahead of ourselves a bit.  Way back in the 2nd century, BCE (“Before the Common Era”), a fellow by the name of Philo of Byzantium conducted what are thought to be the first experiments on the relationship of combustion to air.  Philo didn’t get things quite right, though, thinking that air was “converted” into fire. 

That’s okay, though.  A lot of experimenters got close to figuring out what was at the heart of combustion, but didn’t quite get there.  Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Boyle, John Mayow – all of them respected figures in the annals of science – came up short.  Then things kind of took a turn.  A couple of German chemists – Georg Ernst Stahl and J.J. Becher – came up with something called the “phlogiston” theory, an odd duck of an idea that held that combustible materials were of essentially two parts. A “phlogisticated substance (we don’t make this up, we just report it)” that contains “phlogiston,” which is released when burned, and a “dephlogisticate” that is left behind as a result of combustion.

You know what we need now, don’t you?  A Swede!  Yup… Carl Wilhelm Scheele came along in the 1770’s and produced oxygen by heating oxides of mercury.  Only he called it “fire air.” A little later, Joseph Priestly confirmed the finding in England.  Antoine Laurent Lavoisier tried to horn in on the discovery, but he didn’t “discover” this fire air until after Priestly told him how he did it.  What Lavoisier did, though, was establish that the “phlogiston” theory was a crock (it was really, as we all know, a planet in Romulan space), and – this was the important part – establish that air was a mixture of two gases, one of which was what he called “vital air.”  That name being kind of dull, Lavoisier renamed vital air “oxygen.”  In the end, Priestly gets the credit for discovering the element because he published his findings first in what is chemistry’s most famous example of “you snooze, you lose.”  Sorry, Carl Wilhelm.

So now we have this element; what is it good for?  Well, lots.  First, it is an extremely reactive element.  Even though oxygen occurs naturally as a gas, it gets used up in a variety of reactions and has to be replenished in the atmosphere by photosynthesis in plants.  It is essential to biological function, establishing itself in proteins, carbohydrates, fats, inorganic structural elements (teeth, bones), and it is critical to respiratory processes.

It has other applications as well.  For example, oxygen therapy or hyperbaric treatment.  It is used as a breathing gas in pressurized space suits and to assist breathing in low-pressure environments (mountain-climbing, for example).  It is used in steel manufacture and welding.  It is an important element in rocket fuel.

It can be hazardous due to its reactivity.  In high concentrations it can promote rapid combustion.  An oxygen source in close proximity to a fuel source can result in explosion if a triggering mechanism is present.  If liquid oxygen leaches into organic material (that containing carbon), the material can explode spontaneously if jostled or force is applied to it.

What we are left with is an element that is as essential as there is for life processes.  It is the predominant element in the air that we breathe.  It is highly reactive, a critical element in rocket fuel, one capable of contributing to combustion or, in special situations, detonation.  It sounds like a foundational player, one without whom success would be nearly impossible.  A player capable of generating spontaneous reactions from fans with his rushes up ice and his ability to score from almost anywhere.  And, having the atomic number “8,” we have…

Oxygen…the “Alex Ovechkin” of the elements of the periodic table.

1 comment:

Diane said...

Of course! Who else could it possibly be? (That was my prediction on who Element #8 would be. The 8th element for #8)

Great series on the elements, in any case.