"Near Twins and Black Sheep"

Author: Sam Kean, presented by Bethany Hanson

Summary of Chapter 2 "Near Twins and the Black Sheep"

In chapter 2, Sam Kean focuses on three main elements, germanium, silicon, and carbon. He begins the chapter by talking about carbon and how it can create long chains of amino acids. Carbon is the basic building block for life, being able to bond with almost anything, it tries to bond with any atom in its reach. This causes carbon to be able to build complex chains of amino acids(ch 2, pg 17). Silicon also has that same need to bond with other atoms. Silicon is known as an alternative to carbon because of their similar properties, even though silicon cannot sustain a life form properly. Silicon and carbon have the same flexibility when it comes to bonding and silicon has the amazing ability to mimic carbon(ch 2, pg 15). But when silicon bonds with certain elements like oxygen to create silicon dioxide, a deadly gas that can kill humans, only at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, besides it being at super high temperatures its not lethal in solid form. Silicon and germanium were being tested for the use of transistors in computers. Although germanium was used mainly in the experiments, silicon took over once scientists figured out how to use it and now everything computer related today uses silicon, leaving germanium in the dust. The reason they used germanium and silicon because they were both great semi conductors of energy compared to other elements(ch 2, pg 13). But since silicon was found more easily, cheaper and more reliable than germanium, germanium was dropped from the top charts and is now not known by many people unlike silicon(ch 2, pg15). The "Near Twins and the Black Sheep" aka, silicon, carbon and germanium were Kean's main focal point in the chapter and fit in the title as carbon and silicon are so similar they are like twins while germanium is the black sheep because of its so different properties.

Profile about Carbon the element

Carbon is a nonmetal that has atomic number of 6, atomic mass of 12.01, and in period 2 and group 14 on the periodic table. This element has an electron configuration of 1s2, 2s2, 2p6. This element is naturally occurring element and is also the 6th most common element found on earth. Carbon is mostly found in rocks and other places like animals, soil, atmosphere, fossil fuels, and the ocean(NASA,2016). Is mainly found as carbon dioxide and can be found as graphite and diamonds in certain parts of the world. Carbon was first discovered back in prehistoric times as charcoal, its name is rooted from the Latin name for burnt wood. Carbon is the basic building block of life, without it we wouldn't be here because we like many animals are carbon based life forms(FROST,2010). Carbon is mainly used as charcoal or coal for fossil fuels, and also for the carbon cycle of life, that keeps us alive! The main solid forms are graphite, diamonds, and coal. Graphite is one of the softest metals while diamond is harder than many metals, and they are made from the same element(NASA,2016).

Profile about Silicon the element

The element with an atomic number of 14, an atomic mass of 28.086, in the period 3 and group 14 on the periodic table. The electron configuration is 1s2, 2s2, 2p6, 3s2, 3p2 of silicon. Silicon is classified metalloid and found in nature as flints. Silicon is one of the most useful elements to humans, we can use it for computer elements, sealants, concrete and more(RSC,2016). Most commonly in the form of silicon dioxide, it is found in sand, quartz, and rocks like granite and can be used for building concrete structures or sidewalks, as it is very strong. Silicon is surprisingly brittle, a semi conductor, and is similar to germanium in chemical properties relating to conduction properties(JL,2015). The scientist who discovered this was Jons Jacob Berzelius, in the year 1824 the Swedish chemist discovered the element silicon(RSC,2016).

Profile about Germanium the element

Germanium has the atomic number of 32, atomic mass of 72.641. On the periodic table germanium is in the period 4 and group 14 with an electron configuration of 1s2, 2s2, 2p6, 3s2, 3p6, 4s2, 4p2. Germanium is classified an metalloid, and is known for health boosting properties, mostly derived from plants(JL,2016). Germanium was discovered by Clemens Winkler and the name of the element came from the Latin name for Germany(RSC,2016). It was found in a mine near Freiberg, Germany, where they discovered it in an ore called argyrodite. Germanium ores are very rare and commonly found in zinc ores. It's brittle, a semi conductor, and is being researched for medical uses, since it causes damage to certain bacteria. This element is important because it could possibly help the sick, we use it for camera lenses and we can use it in lamps for lighting and other uses(RSC,2016).


The Carbon Cycle : Feature Articles. (2015). Retrieved January 7, 2016, from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/

Who discovered carbon? (2010). Retrieved January 10, 2016, from http://antoine.frostburg.edu/chem/senese/101/inorganic/faq/discovery-of-carbon.shtml

The Element Silicon. (2015). Retrieved January 10, 2015, from http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele014.html

Silicon - Element information, properties and uses | Periodic Table. (2015). Retrieved January 9, 2016, from http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table/element/14/silicon

The Element Germanium. (2016). Retrieved January 15, 2015, from http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele032.html

Germanium - Element information, properties and uses | Periodic Table. (2016). Retrieved January 12, 2016, from http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table/element/32/germanium


All three of these elements are important in some way. Carbon is the base of all life forms on earth, its got multiple purposes, as a pencil , graphite, or as a diamond on jewelry. Silicon has conductive properties that make it some of the essential parts in computers today, and many more uses. Germanium, may not be as popular as the others but plays a crucial role in possible medical advancements as well as camera lenses are built using this material. All these elements were placed in his book because they are some of the elements that create life, and create modern technology as we know it. Without these elements there would be a no humans and no modern technology.