Wednesday, 24 April 2013


I was drinking a cup of tea this afternoon, a cup of tea with a hint of peppermint, to soothe my poorly tummy and the cup that I was drinking from has the periodic table printed on it. This made me start thinking about which of the elements is my favourite.

As I thought about it I have found it quite hard to choose.

I like mercury (Hg). It is only one of two elements, the other being bromine (Br) that are liquids at room temperature. Mercury is treated with kid gloves now because the vapour that is released can cause brain damage. The story goes that hatters, are they the people that make hats, or are they milliners? Anyway, whatever, the people who made the top hats used mercury to strengthen the brims and the continued exposure to the mercury vapour made them go mad. This supposably inspired Lewis Carolls character The Mad Hatter. When I was a kid, some of these hand held maze games contained mercury not ball bearings. It was much more fun to free the mercury onto a table and play with it with our fingers. It never did us any harm.

Vanadium (V) is quite good. It is found in the transition block. It is element 23. It can form different oxidation states and all the different states have different colours ranging from yellow to lilac. Therefore compounds of Vanadium are very colourful.

Carbon (C) has got to be up there at the top. Carbons ability to hybridise its outer electrons allows it to form many chemicals. In its pure form it can exist as graphite in pencils or diamond in, well, diamonds as well as a host of other atomic arrangements. When bonded to other elements like hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) it forms the molecules of life. The actual substance that makes us unique.

What about hydrogen and oxygen? Put them together in the correct proportions (2:1) and they make an amazing explosion, releasing energy and creating water in the process. Some might say it is not rocket science but in this case it literally is.

My favourite element however is protactinium (Pa). It is a silvery grey metal found in the Earths crust is such small amounts, a few parts per trillion, that it is one of the rarest elements naturally occurring on Earth. It is highly toxic and is also radioactive. Because of its rarity and toxicity it has no viable uses. Why do I like it? Because it has a cool name.


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