Elementary, my dear Aristotle

Populaire_wetenschapWhat is the world actually made of? This is a question that has plagued philosophers and scientists for millennia. What are the building blocks that make up the universe? Can they be defined and categorized? Can we break down things as complex as trees, oceans, and human beings into their basic form?

The first attempts at answering this question were made in ancient Babylon, and quickly adopted by the Greeks. The world was comprised of four elements, they said: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. This was the foundation of the study of alchemy, and is deeply embedded in many religions and philosophies that still believe those four forces form the cornerstones of the known universe.

Modern chemists, however, came to a startlingly differing conclusion. In their version the universe is made up over one hundred different elements, and new ones are being discovered or invented on a regular basis. The periodic table of elements was first published in the late 18th century, the culmination of work done by chemists for years using intricate tools such as microscopes that were unavailable to their ancient predecessors. Starting out with a modest 33 elements, the table grew by leaps and bounds surprisingly everyone by the number of elements in the world, and even sometimes predicting new elements that would be discovered. In the periodic table elements comprise of a single atom, and everything in our known world is made up of different compounds of these elements.

Discovery_of_chemical_elements.svgPerhaps the most well-known elemental compound is water, known scientifically as H2O. H stands for hydrogen, O stands for oxygen. The 2 indicates that there are two hydrogen elements and one oxygen element, and thus we get water.

In the light of these new understandings it might seem that the ancient alchemists were completely out to lunch with their theories of four basic elements, and that the only role earth, fire, air and water have in our universe today is as interesting plot elements and spirituality. It gives me great pleasure, however, to tell you that Plato was not completely wrong.

As a home-schooled grade-schooler reading Usborne books I learned that there were three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Getting our good friend H2O to illustrate: ice is a solid, water a liquid, and clouds/water vapor is a gas. Different elements take different forms more naturally at room temperature. Some require extreme cold or even compression to solidify, some require exceedingly high temperatures even to become a liquid. But given the right environment and equipment any element can be forced to take one of these three forms.

Simple enough, eh? But then, one bright day, I discovered plasma physics. Which, of course, meant discovering the existence of plasma. Which, in turn lead me to realize that there are actually four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.

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Earth, water, air, and fire.

So while the ancient Greeks may have missed the mark in discovering the periodic table of elements, they get an A+ for being the first to discover the four states of matter.

Flourish 3

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