Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”

Lanthanum, Uranium, Rhenium, Nitrogen. 

That’s how to spell my name in elements. 

La-U-Re-N. 

I actually remember a lot from my high school chemistry classes (even if some of those memories are staring at the Periodic Table of Elements poster on the wall and trying to figure out if I could use it to spell out my name). 

Freshman year I struggled with balancing chemical equations until I stayed behind class one day with three other friends to have the teacher explain it to us in more words. After that, solving them became a kind of fun puzzle. It was an almost comforting thing—from the elements (hah) given I could figure out what was missing, no matter if the blanks were on the side of the reactants or the products. 

CH₄ + 2 O₂ → CO₂ + 2 H2O

Methane plus oxygen yields carbon dioxide and water. Something into something else. Water into wine. Alchemy? No. Chemistry.

Something into something else, but never something into nothing, or nothing into something. (Thanks, law of conservation of mass and “STOICHIOMETRY!”, which my teacher loved bellowing.)

Sophomore year we delved into the history of the atom. We traced the path from John Dalton’s solid sphere,  J.J. Thompson’s plum pudding, Ernest Rutherford’s nuclear model, Niels Bohr’s planetary model, and finally to Erwin Schrödinger’s electron cloud/quantum mechanics model. 

Rutherford’s gold foil experiment fascinated me, as he (with colleagues Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden) was able to determine that atoms have nuclei surrounded by an empty space in which electrons moved. Proving existence by way of nonexistence. Proving a positive from a negative (that was an electron joke, if you couldn’t tell.)

Perhaps what was most interesting to me about chemistry was the very fact that we could study something that was too small to see. 

When we learned about orbital levels, or the probable configurations of electrons within an atom, we moved into even more invisible territory. Yet I was captivated by the predictable way that electron levels filled up, even as the exact location of an electron at any time is probable rather than set in stone. This incongruous mix of probability and certitude, of simultaneous existence and nonexistence, was fascinating to me.

Lanthanum comes from the Greek root lanthanein, “to lie hidden.” Like dysprosium, which comes from the Greek dysprositos, or “hard to get,” it is classified as a rare-earth element, although lanthanum is three times more abundant than lead in the earth’s crust. Dysprosium doesn’t exist as a free element—instead always joined with minerals—and similarly lanthanum was first misclassified as an impurity in cerium nitrate before discovered to be its own element.

In between balancing chemical equations and memorizing orbital levels, I learned that the visible is reliant upon the invisible—that existence can be proven by reliance as well as independence, that the periodic table too was organized by relationships between things. I think, therefore I am. Perhaps it is also true that I belong, therefore I am. 

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    Is there anyone who has taken chemistry and hasn’t tried to spell their name from the periodic table?

    “The visible is reliant upon the invisible.” I know you probably weren’t intending to be theological in this one, but I couldn’t help going there reading it.

    All in all, a wonderful little life lesson of yours. And I am always a fan of Greek showing up in a piece.

    Reply

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