The Disappearing Spoon: Chapter 18

Tools of Ridiculous Precision (Patrick Miller)

Summary

Chapter 18 of “The Disappearing Spoon” discusses the many ways humanity tries to get the most accurate measurements, of anything that is measurable. The first part of the chapter begins to talk about the International Bureau of Weights and Measures and their International Prototype Kilogram. The item is a 90% platinum cylinder that has a mass of exactly one kilogram.(Ch. 18, pg 162) The IPK was cared for extensively so that its mass would not increase by even one electron! Unfortunately in 1990 it was discovered that the IPK had lost the mass equal to that of a finger print. This goes to show how difficult it is to keep measurements consistent when using physical means. A platinum rod in paris for example served as the most accurate measure of a meter, until it was redefined by adding a krypton-86 atom. This redefinition fixed one meter at 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of red-orange light from a krypton-86 atom. Since then metrologists again, redefined a meter as the distance light travels when in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second.(Ch. 18, pg 163)


Speaking of seconds, the original official definition of one second was about 1/31,556,992 of one trip around the sun. The invention of Cesium powered atomic clocks however soon provided a more accurate definition. Later the chapter begins moving onto constants. Basically, the world is how it is because of Alpha. Because Alpha is measurable, scientists found a number for it (Ch. 18, pg 164). That is, until data for site Oklo came in. Oklo is the world’s only natural fission reactor, powered by uranium, water, and blue-algae. The data from it caught the entire scientific community off guard, as it showed that Alpha is infact getting bigger. Discovering Alpha was even more difficult with the curve-balls Oklo threw, such as a lack of Samarium in the Oklo nuclear waste, when compared to modern* nuclear waste (modern being 1976) (Ch. 18, pg 166). A boost however was the likelihood that, even though Alpha has been changing in the past 1.7 billion years, it likely underwent a rapid shift in the early years of the universe, a time of chaos. Australian scientists had a little luck by examining elements is dust clouds left by stars. Chromium for example, proved to be highly reactive to Alpha. Nevertheless, the process of discovering Alpha was still long. Not even Enrico Fermi, namesake of Fermium could figure out the mystery of Alpha before his death (Ch. 18, pg 167). Fermi did leave with one question though, is there other life? Surely, if all the constants in the universe lined up to create life on Earth, why not on other planets. By searching for elements crucial to the formation of primitive life, such as magnesium, scientists may be able to discover other forms of life. If we are to do this however, we humans must take the initiative. (Ch. 18, pg 168).

Elements In this Chapter

1. Platinum (Pt)
  • Atomic number- 78
  • Mass- 195.078 Amu
  • Period 6 / Group 10
  • Electron Config. -1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 3d10 4s2 4p6 4d10 4f14 5s2 5p6 5d9 6s1
  • A Naturally found transition metal, platinum was first used by pre-Colombian Indians in South America. It is commonly found in gold bearing sands in locations such as Columbia, or the Ural Mountains. It was found by Antonio de Ulloa, and was named after the Spanish word for silver, Platina. Platinum is dense, yet malleable making it useful for everything from wires, to jewelry, to being used as a coating for missile cones.


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental -The Element Protactinium. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele078.html

2. Krypton (Kr)
  • Atomic Number- 36
  • Mass- 83.798 Amu
  • Period 4 / Group 18
  • Electron Config - 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 3d10 4s2 4p6
  • A Naturally formed Noble gas, Krypton was discovered in 1898 by Scottish Chemist Sir William Ramsay. The only natural location it can be found in is the Earth's atmosphere, of which it takes a very small part decreasing its usefulness. Its name comes from the Greek word Kryptos, meaning hidden. Krypton, despite the difficulty to obtain it, sees usage in photography, and even some florescent light bulbs. It is also an important part of airport runway lights as it can give off a very bright light in the right conditions.


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental -The Element Protactinium. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele036.html

3. Cesium (Cs)
  • Atomic Number- 55
  • Mass- 132.91 Amu
  • Period 6 / Group 1
  • Electron Config- 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 3d10 4s2 4p6 4d10 5s2 5p6 6s1
  • Cesium is an Alkali Metal named after the Latin word for sky blue, Caesius. It was discovered in 1860 by 2 German scientists; Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and Gustav Robert Kirchhoff. Pure Cesium is hard to obtain because it is usually found contaminated with Rubidium. Never the less, the ore containing Cesium is found in large deposits in Manitoba Canada. Because Cesium has a low melting point, it is extremely limited in its uses. The most prominent use of it would be in atomic clocks.

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental -The Element Protactinium. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele036.html

4. Uranium (U)

  • Atomic Number- 92
  • Mass- 238.02891
  • Period 7/ No group
  • Electron Config-1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 3d10 4s2 4p6 4d10 4f14 5s2 5p6 5d10 5f3 6s2 6p6 6d1 7s2
  • Uranium is a radioactive member of the Actinide series and arguably the most famous. Named for the planet Uranus, it was discovered by Martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1789. It is typically found in uranium ores such as pitchblende or caronite, and because there is little demand for uranium metal, it is typically sold as sodium diuranate. Uranium mining is extremely rare compared to mines for traditional resources, with the leading producer being Kazakhstan. Uranium sees usage in many fields including electricity production, as a radiation shield, and most infamously in nuclear weapons


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental -The Element Protactinium. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele092.html


Stephanie Pappas (July 9, 2015.). Facts About Uranium Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://www.livescience.com/39773-facts-about-uranium.html

5. Samarium (Sm)

  • Atomic Number-62
  • Mass-150.36
  • Period 6 / No group
  • Electron Config- 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 3d10 4s2 4p6 4d10 4f6 5s2 5p6 6s2
  • Named after the mineral Samarskite, Samarium was first observed in 1853 by Swiss chemist Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac. It wasn't actually discovered until 1879 by Paul-Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran. A member of the Lanthanide group, It is not found in nature but instead found inside many minerals, and is primarily obtained through an Iron exchange process. One of the biggest uses of Samarium is in Samarium-Cobalt magnets. These magnets are found in devices ranging from solar chargers, to headphones, to solar powered aircraft. The minerals containing Samarium are scattered all over the world. Some like Monazite are found in Madagascar, India, and Africa, while Bastnasite is found in Sweden.



Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental -The Element Protactinium. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele062.html


Live Science Staff (July 12, 2013.). Facts About Samarium Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://www.livescience.com/38162-samarium.html

6. Chromium (Cr)
  • Atomic Number- 24
  • Mass- 51.9961
  • Period 4 / Group 6
  • Electron Config- 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 3d5 4s1
  • Discovered in 1797 by Louis-Nicholas Vauquelin, Chromium (named after the Greek word for color, Chroma) is a blue and white transition metal that, while brittle, is corrosion resistant. A non-natural element, it is primarily obtained by heating the metal Chromite. The largest Producer in the world of Chromium currently is South Africa. One of the biggest uses of Chromium is chrome plating for added corrosion resistance. When combined with iron, stainless steel is formed opening up a wide variety of uses in, for example, cookware. Chromium also sees significant use in dye and pigments.



Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental -The Element Protactinium. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele024.html

7. Fermium (Fm)
  • Atomic Number- 100
  • Mass- 257
  • Period 7 / No Group
  • Electron config- 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 3d10 4s2 4p6 4d10 4f14 5s2 5p6 5d10 5f12 6s2 6p6 7s2
  • Named for deceased scientist Enrico Fermi, Fermium is a radioactive, artificial member of the Actinide series. Discovered in the aftermath of the first hydrogen bomb detonation in 1952 by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Fermium is relatively new. The most stable isotope of Fermium, Fermium-257, has a half life of 100.5 days. It eventually decays into Californium-253. Because of the short life span and the fact very little has been produced, Fermium has no use outside of research yet.


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental -The Element Protactinium. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele100.html

8. Magnesium (Mg)
  • Atomic Number- 12
  • Mass- 24.3050
  • Period 3 / Group 2
  • Electron Config - 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2
  • Named for Magnesia, a district in the region of Thessaly, Greece, Magnesium is the eighth most abundant element in the universe. Ironically this Alkaline Earth Metal is never found free in nature. First isolated in 1808 by Sir Humphry Davy, magnesium is most commonly extracted from seawater. Because it burns with such an intense white light, Magnesium is popular with pyrotechnics, flares, and photographic flashbulbs. It is also the lightest metal that can be built with, but unfortunately Magnesium's low burning point makes this risky. Magnesium alloys on the other hand, are much stronger and can cover a wider variety of jobs, from being used in cameras to horseshoes.


Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education. (n.d.). It's Elemental -The Element Protactinium. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from: http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele012.html

Summary

Chapter 18 revolves around measurements. From the perfect kilogram made of platinum, to the number that helps explain life. All the elements in this chapter, while they may seem vastly different, tie everything together. Platinum used in a cylinder, ties itself together with Magnesium, the element helping find proof of Alpha, the God number. They all serve a purpose in measuring the various intricate parts of this world, universe, and of all of humanity.

QUIZ TIME

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