Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 6

Fearless has gone on with this series almost as long as some legislators filibuster.  But now he is down to a six-pack of elements…


The discovery of carbon dates back about six millennia, to the Egyptians and Sumerians in the manufacture of bronze.  On particular form of carbon – diamonds – were known of more than four millennia ago in China.  It might have been known of and used as charcoal in the earliest of human civilizations.

Since those early beginnings carbon has occupied a central place in human social, industrial and biological evolution.  Beginning with the latter, carbon is the basis for all organic life on this planet.  This is a product of its unique ability to form long-chains binding with other carbon atoms, and to its unique chemical bond characteristics.  It employs these characteristics to form simple sugars, complex carbohydrates, alcohols, fats, amino acids (from which proteins assemble), nucleic acids, adenosine triphosphate (the most important chemical you probably have never heard of – it is the basis for energy transfer in all living cells), and a variety of more exotic organic compounds.

It is an element that remains constant in volume on earth, meaning that when carbon is a part of physical processes, it must come from somewhere (or something) and be deposited somewhere else (or in something else).  This “carbon cycle” of inputs and outputs is reflected in such processes as carbon respiration in plants and in consumption and metabolism of nutrients.

Which brings us to its industrial evolution.  Its discovery as an element starts in 1722 with René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (“Grande Toni,” for short) transforming iron into steel by introducing an intermediary element.  That element would be carbon.   Fifty years later Antoine Lavoisier (“Petit Toni” for short) demonstrated that diamond is a form of carbon.  Just two years after that, Carl Wilhelm Scheele (who for some reason was nicknamed, “Swedish Toni”) showed that graphite was yet another form of carbon.  It was left to Lavoisier to settle on the name for the element, identifying it as “carbon” in a chemical textbook he published in 1789.

Having been identified as occurring in a number of different forms was not enough.  It was found to be the essential element of crude oil and comprising the structural element of plants (through cellulose, an extremely long chain carbon-based molecule).  Given these forms and sources, it became the basis for a huge variety of applications, including: steel manufacture, “lead” pencils (in which the “lead” is primarily graphite), dry batteries, paint and ink, food preparation (charcoal grilling), structural carbon fiber, electroplating, nuclear power generation (as a neutron moderator in reactors), and plastics.

It is one of the rare elements that has incorporated itself in the social evolution of man, primarily in its diamond form.  They are a girl’s best friend, they serve as the basis for commitment for couples, they serve to signal significant anniversaries.

We have an element that is the centerpiece of living processes, an element that is central to the inputs and outputs of biology.  It is an element that takes many forms and has many applications, limited only it seems by the imagination of those searching for applications.  It has an important place in the social fabric of human history.  It is not unlike a figure who occupies a central role in the life of a hockey team, one concerned with the inputs and outputs of the on-ice product, one whose imagination can mold its many forms into a variety of strategies and approaches for winning hockey.

Carbon…the “Adam Oates” of the elements of the periodic table.

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