THIS WEEK'S FEATURE ARTICLES
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Dancing on the table
“On entering your chemistry lab you are bound to find a big chart labelled ‘Periodic Table of Elements”. So says the website ScienceStruck. Well, I didn’t
have a chemistry lab. In fact I have only the most basic knowledge of chemistry, which includes knowing that elements have symbols, sometimes related to their familiar names: hydrogen’s symbol is H and oxygen’s is O, and sometimes not: silver is Ag and mercury is Hg, for instance.
Scientists both professional and amateur will know immediately that the writer is virtually scientifically illiterate. Periodically – no pun intended – quiz shows will throw in a question about an element’s position (number) on the periodic table, or ask for the abbreviated name of a certain element, and that has occasionally piqued my interest in this mysterious list. When I recently discovered that the United Nations has designated 2019 the International Year of the periodic table of Chemical Elements, and that 2019 also commemorates the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the periodic table, I decided to investigate this unknown field a little further. The UN says that the development of the (modern) periodic system by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869 was one of the most significant achievements in science, capturing the essence not only of chemistry, but also of physics and biology. “Since ancient times people have occupied themselves with the task of finding the ultimate building blocks of matter,” says ScienceStruck. ”In the 20th century that task was accomplished and now we know that everything is made up of atoms.” Some 92 different and naturally occurring atoms bond to form the complex matter that is all around us, the identification and cataloguing of which is of great importance for chemists, physicists and engineers.
And the rest of us?
Not all of us are chemists, physicists or engineers. So of what relevance is this ‘most significant achievement’ to the rest of us? The mere existence of a periodic table, even knowing the atomic structure of the elements, surely needs to have some practical application beyond an academic exercise. The Interesting Engineering website is helpful: “Everybody knows that calcium is the stuff in milk and bones, chlorine goes into swimming pools, and helium floats balloons. But … what’s the use of molybdenum, antimony or gallium?” They point out some of the everyday uses of, for example, strontium (Sr). “… this alkali Earth metal (just like calcium and magnesium) is a common component in red fireworks and flares. It’s also used in clear batteries and medical diagnostic tracers.” The site lists all 118 of the chemical elements with details of their composition and practical uses. Hydrogen (H), “an explosive gas and the lightest of the elements”, was fuel for NASA’s space shuttle program. Carbon is the basis for the world’s natural organic fuels and graphite, a form of carbon, is used for pencils, crucibles and electrodes.
And one that’s not so familiar, perhaps, holmium (Ho) is a soft metal, “used in the production of magnets … and as a yellow or red colour in cubic zirconia manufacturing.”
Girls can be chemists too
This month we celebrated International Women’s Day, but last month saw the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, highlighting women role models whose discovery of elements contributed significantly to the periodic table. Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize twice for discovering radium (Ra) and polonium (Po); Berta Karlik discovered astatine (At); Lisa Meitner identified an isotope of protactinium (Pa); Ida Noddack discovered rhenium (Re) and Marguerite Perey discovered francium (Fr). This year we also acknowledge the scientists whose earliest contributions paved the way for others. The periodic table is the province of humankind. Nowhere is this more evident than in the variety of nationalities represented in its completion – and it is, to all intents and purposes, complete, with all the elements having been discovered and given their final names. As far back as 800 BC, an Arab alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, isolated arsenic and antimony. German, French and Russian scientists made major breakthroughs in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Lead smelting is believed to have begun in Africa 9,000 years ago and a lead statuette was found in Egypt and dated circa 3,800 BC. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry is in its element (again, no pun intended) this year with an agenda to foster international cooperation, develop educational establishments and industry, and build durable partnerships for the future. The IUPAC president is Zhou Qifeng, from China.
There’s more to it than numbers
The UN states that “the chemical elements are crucial for humankind and our planet, and for industry.” The internet has many informative sites with Wikipedia and the United Nations sites especially enlightening, and while the periodic table will probably never have the same pop-science attraction as Newton’s apple, or Archimedes’ bath, it makes a pretty picture when colour-coded on Wikipedia. Also watch Tom Lehrer’s very-quickly-sung version of the periodic table, and on YouTube the Periodic Table Song by the wbe. They’ll bring a smile to your face and some understanding about these amazing elements.
The gift of inspiration
I recently bought a book as
a housewarming gift – then found myself reading it before gifting it. The book is ‘ Family Guide to Waste-Free Living by Lauren and Oberon Carter.
You might have heard about Lauren and Oberon on the ABC.
They are the founders of Zero Waste Tasmania. They live with their three daughters here in southern Tasmania. In September 2015, they undertook a sustainability challenge, and reduced their energy consumption by more than 60% on their way to living completely waste and recycling free.
Oberon is an ecologist who works to protect Tasmania’s threatened species and places. He has been a regular speaker on a range of waste issues on ABC radio, and has presented talks on reducing waste to various community and student groups. He is a qualified permaculture design teacher who is passionate about living with
a small ecological footprint.
Host of Gardening Australia Costa Georgiadis says: “[This book] provides the ingredients to create a new normal.” According to the book’s blurb, “A Family Guide to Waste-Free Living gives you a lot of the information, advice, budget-friendly recipes and projects you’ll need to progress with reducing waste in your life.” There are sections:
The Basics, an introduction to waste free living.
Food, close the loop.
Packaging, unpack your life.
Around the house, keeping a waste free home.
Celebrate and venture outside, gather without waste.
Change, foster a waste free community.
So, lots to investigate.
The book looks ideal for those moving onto an acre of land. They may already be into veggie patches, worm farms, and compost, and talking of chickens, ‘bug hotels’ and the like.
Recent television programs, and my experiences off the coast of Iceland and in the Pacific, have highlighted the need to tackle our ever-growing waste problem.
I would like to get to the stage the Carter family has – to put out their wheelie bin just twice in the past six months as they work towards a zero-waste lifestyle. The idea of zero-waste living is to only buy things that can be reused or composted at the end of their original purpose. They said they thought it would be really hard, but found it was really easy. The Carters now share their zero-waste living experiences through a Facebook group called Zero Waste Tasmania.
Like many others, I started on this journey after seeing the devastation plastic is causing. Like the Carters I now take a basket and purpose-made cloth bags when shopping, refusing items wrapped in unnecessary plastic, and use my own glass containers for things such as meat and deli products. If one store does not allow that, I go to the ones that do.
My pantry now has a row of glass jars to hold items bought from a bulk wholefood store. Any spare glass containers, such as jam or relish jars, are returned, clean, to the store for others to use. It all makes a lot of sense.
Having watched the War on Waste series, I now find that if I see people on TV walking around with
a single-use coffee cup it does not feel right (especially when they are politicians). It reminds me of the campaigns against smoking. Where once it was acceptable to see film stars with a cigarette always in their mouth, now it just feels plain wrong.
The City of Hobart received a great response recently to its single-use plastics survey. “Thanks to everyone who participated,” said the council. “We had an overwhelming response, with more than 96% of participants indicating that single-use plastic takeaway items be banned in Hobart.”
Channel Ten’s The Project made reference to the survey, and the results have been highlighted in recent correspondence to all local councils and to the minister for environment and parks. Hobart City Council resolved to put a motion to the Local Government Association Tasmania in July, and will seek sector support for a statewide ban on single-use plastics.
The City of Hobart will now press ahead and continue to integrate the banning of single-use plastics into our current by-laws. Good on you Hobart.
I have run out of time to finish this book so will now happily buy my own copy.
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