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Wow! It exploded! And other fun with chemistry.

Many people groan when chemistry is mentioned. But it has a certain romance to it.

Scott Wallace - staff

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In my college biology course, I teach a short section on chemistry that's essential to understanding many biological processes. Unfortunately, many of my students grimace when I so much as mention chemistry, due, I suspect, to unhappy experiences with the subject in high school. Undaunted, I plow ahead.

There is a certain romance about chemistry that I strive to communicate to my students, and much of its poetry lies in its building blocks – the elements.

Oxygen, sulfur, gold, tin: For the longest time only 104 of these pure substances were known, 92 of them naturally occurring and 12 man-made. But now the number seems to be unlimited as we engineer ways to create larger and larger atoms, some existing for the briefest of moments before evaporating into the universal ether.

Be that as it may, the elements are jam-packed with the most wonderful lore. All elements have a chemical symbol consisting of one or two letters, frequently taken from their English names: H for hydrogen, He for helium, and B for boron. But some symbols are derived from Latin, Greek, and other languages. The symbol Ag, for silver, is from the Latin word for silver, argentum. In the same manner, we have for gold, Au, from aurum; sodium, Na, from natirum; and one of my favorites, lead, Pb, for plumbum, hence plumbers, who used to work with lead pipe.

But my favorite symbol is the one for the only metallic element that is a liquid at room temperature – mercury, symbol Hg. I have a small vial of mercury that I swirl around for my students. The ancient Romans regarded mercury as a type of silver that flowed. They therefore called it "liquid silver" or hydragyrum, hence its symbol.

But there's an even more alluring name for the stuff, the archaic English "quick-silver." Although quick has come to be synonymous with fast, its original meaning was "living," as if our forebears considered mercury to possess a spirit (hence "the quick and the dead").


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