Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Elemental Musings

The other day, my son asked me what makes fireworks different colors. "It's the elements" I explained: "different chemical elements in fireworks give different colors when they burn." Fortunately, I remembered* a couple of examples: red (strontium), blue (copper), and green (barium). Because he has a periodic table on his wall, those names were at least familiar to him.

I googled up a cool spiral version of the Periodic Table of the Elements (the original is here. I like this chart because the spiral line tracks the series of the known elements, ranging from 1 to about 107 (there are actually now 118 elements). Also, the radial arrangement indicates some of the “rhyming” between related elements (so-called periodicity).

Mentally uncoil the spiral and imagine a number line beginning with 1 (hydrogen), continuing with 2 (helium), then 3 (lithium), etc., and ending at 118. This is the alphabet of matter--just as 26 characters are the alphabet of our language. But just as the alphabet alone cannot capture the compositional richness of language--words, sentences, paragraphs, and books--the elements alone cannot capture the richness of the physical world. And yet the table of elements is still a marvel to contemplate.

*Added: a website link that tells you how to color flames with common household materials: Link.


  1. It's beautiful displayed that way, El Pollo! Thanks for the science lesson. I was...not exactly a good student of science in school. Glad to see my kid loving it, though!

  2. Thanks Darcy!

    I'm thinking of continuing the theme with a little blogpost on each element in turn, emphasizing its role in science, history, and politics. Ambitious or geeky folly?

  3. Well, I'd like it! (I think I slept through science. Hee.) I want to know more.

  4. Try to sneak in a few fake ones and see if anyone catches on!

  5. Jason- thanks for the suggestion-the real story of Technetium (43) and the associated "false" claims thereto will probably do well enough-all in good time, all in good time. :)

  6. Wow that was a great explanation. I always thought it was the vodka. Thanks.

  7. You have set the [periodic] table and you must let us feast.

    I used to think it was clever to think I was a combination of Ru [Ruthenium] and Th [Thorium]. And then I became an Atoms [Adams].

  8. Ruth Anne,
    The naming of the elements is a fascinating story in itself.

    I'm working on a light, first course appetizer.

    Thanks for stopping by!



    I skipped Chemistry and did Physics. It should all be resolvable from that, right?

  10. That's very pretty. The universe rhymes, and chimes. The music of the spheres is fractal.

  11. Hey Hector! I just noticed your comment. I'm a fan of you.
    Thanks so much for stopping by.