Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Protons

I've watched way too many science shows over the years. I enjoy them because they teach me things I should've learned in school. I've probably learned more about history and science thanks to the History Channel than all 12 years of school. Not the Science Channel. All they ever show are reruns of How It's Made. Though Through the Wormhole is turning out to be a good series. And lately the History Channel is less to do with history and more to do with swamp people and driving on icy roads in Alaska. Formula for modern television: take every occupation and turn it into a TV series! God, I hate reality shows.

But there are some fundamental things I just don't get. Physics and chemistry teach us that matter is made up of protons. Everything from the keyboard under my hands to the air I'm breathing is made up of protons packed into tight balls with electrons spinning around them.

There's always been one question about atomic theory that's eluded me. Why is there such a difference between each element on the periodic table? Take gold (Au 79) and mercury (Hg 80) for example. These two metals couldn't have less in common. Mercury is highly toxic, is liquid at room temperature, and has low conductivity of electricity. Gold, however, is solid at room temperature, is nontoxic and conducts electricity very well.

Why?

Atomically speaking, the only difference between gold and mercury is one proton in the nucleus. How does the addition or subtraction of one proton change every property of the element? Why does the matter behave totally different just because of a proton? How does the number of protons in the nucleus change the properties of matter?

This is a fundamental question to which I have never found an answer, and I've never heard anyone address it before. Oh, sure, I've heard the ol' analogy that stories are just different combinations of the same letters, and matter is like that, too, but that doesn't help!

To me, I could take a pencil eraser and set it on the table, and it would be a pencil eraser. Then I could take a dozen pencil erasers and arrange them in a tight little ball. No matter how many pencil erasers i collect together, it will still be an eraser.

Poor example, I know, but to me it does not make sense to combine more of the same thing and end up with a totally different product. That's what happens on the periodic table. It is mind-bending to think about, and that's why I like watching those sciency shows.

2 comments:

  1. Fuckin' magnets, how do they work?
    It sounds to me like a question for Dr. Karl.

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  2. That's another good point. Magnets! We know that they repel and attract each other, but WHY??? I don't remember anyone addressing this basic question either!

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