Flashback to your high school chemistry classes. Early in the course we were privileged with the discussion of chemical elements. In the context of our studies we found that all matter is composed of chemical entities—pure substances called elements, the primary constituents of matter. The smallest unit of an element is the atom. Atoms, however, have constituent subunits called protons, neutrons, and electrons. An element is a pure substance consisting of only one kind of atom. Most matter we encounter is composed of combinations of two or more elements. As you read this paragraph, keep in mind that every word or phrase is worthy of a book-length elaboration. Our short blog post does not remotely do justice to the wonder of chemical “elements.” We must select but a few fascinating facts about elements to supply a source of wonder.
In our universe there are less than 100 elements occurring in nature—98 to be exact. Nuclear scientists have created a few more synthetic elements existing only fleetingly in minute quantities. Hydrogen and helium are far and away the most common elements in the universe, followed by oxygen, neon, nitrogen, carbon, silicon, magnesium, iron, and sulfur. Chemical elements are not merely accidental random assemblages of coincidental particles. Rather, their construction is a logical and organized hierarchy. Intuitively we perceive a divine creative mind at work.
Two millennia ago some early thinkers conceived of small, discrete bits of matter. From their concept comes the Greek term atomos, meaning indivisible. Two centuries ago empirical evidence for atoms was revealed. Present day introductory chemistry courses now teach subatomic particles—protons, neutrons, and electrons which constitute all atoms of the 98 elements. We return to the hierarchy concept: The number of protons and electrons in elements with atomic numbers 1-98 increase sequentially. Electrons in each element are also arranged in an energy level hierarchy. This phenomenon enables elements to combine into millions of different and unique substances called compounds.
We inquire why two elements such as carbon and nitrogen whose atoms are remarkably similar could manifest such startlingly different characteristics. Carbon (atomic number 6) has six protons and six electrons. Nitrogen has seven protons and seven electrons. A schematic drawing of these two elements would manifest little difference. However, carbon is a black solid while nitrogen is a clear gas at room temperature. Their atomic weights are similar, but they are very different. “Why,” we may ask, “do such differences exist?” The question could be asked from either a naturalistic or a supernaturalistic vantage point. Naturalists may focus on detailed investigations of how chemical phenomena work—a noble endeavor. Supernaturalists might additionally concentrate on apparent intelligent design and divine purpose evident in the world of chemical matter. The latter focus adds an additional robust dimension to our investigations.
Depending on the degree of depth in the chemistry teachers’ pedagogy, their students will learn of the formation of compounds from the elements they study. A compound is a substance formed by chemical combination of two or more elements in fixed proportions. Chemical bonding of elements occurs under prescribed conditions. Up to ten million compounds have been described. These include man-made substances as well as those nature has put together. One estimate states one million “inorganic” compounds exist along with nine million “organic” compounds. Organic compounds are formed from the the all-important versatile element carbon and are associated with life processes. Inorganic compounds are non-carbon based. Many compounds have been synthesized by chemists for human use. Chemical mixtures also exist. Unlike compounds, they need not be combined in fixed mathematical proportions. The number of possible mixtures is limitless.