Perfesser Friar gets Elemental.

Hydrogen is the simplest element.    One proton, and one electron.   It’s the most abundant element, it makes up pretty much 75% of the entire universe we see.

You can make heavier elements by fusing simpler elements together.   By how do you “make” hydrogen?

According to what we know about physics, hydrogen (along with helium) was formed very shortly after the Big Bang.

So, basically all the hydrogen atoms around us (in the plants, animals, and the oceans) are billions of years old, the net result of creation of our universe.  They’re like the “Fossil” atoms from the beginning of time.

The heavy elements (carbon, silicon, gold, lead, etc) were formed much later, inside of stars.


If you throw a rock up, it comes down.

If you do this at fast enough speed, it will never come down and will keep going into space.

That’s called Escape Velocity and it depends on the surface gravity.    On Earth, escape velocity is about 25,000 miles an hour.

Gas molecules in our atmosphere randomly move around like tiny bouncing billiard balls.  They do this at incredibly high speed.

Some of the lighter molecules (hydrogen and helium) can actually exceed escape velocity, and can therefore escape earth.  This is why you hardly find these gases in our atmosphere.

On the other hand, heaver gas molecules (oxygen and nitrogen) travel below escape velocity.   This is why they’re so abundant:  they’re bound by earth’s gravity.

So remember, …when you pop that helium balloon, all that gas is eventually lost.  Molecule by molecule, the helium will slowly makes its way towards outer space, never to come back.

That’s why helium is a non-renewable resource.


For fuel-cell-powered cars, it would be nice to concentrate the hydrogen fuel into a liquid form, for storage and transportation.

But at normal ambient temperatures, you can’t liquefy hydrogen, not even if you compress the Be-Geezus out of it.

It’s not like people are lazy and not trying.

No, it’s just the way the physical properties of hydrogen work.

You can’t get liquid hydrogen unless you go down to several hundred degrees below zero.

That’s one of the challenges for fuel-cell powered cars:

How do you store large enough quantities of hydrogen aboard, without having to install a cryogenic storage system?  Or without building huge reinforced compressed gas tanks?


In my opinion, the LAMEST natural-occurring element ever is Astatine.

At any given moment, there is no more than 1 ounce of it the entire Earth’s crust.

(I mean, really…at those levels, what’s the whole POINT, even?)


Useless bit of trivia here.

All the metallic elements look relatively similar…shiny and silvery.

The only metals with color are copper and gold.


If you leave a bowl of water out, it evaporates.   The molecules turn to gas, and dissipate.

Actually, everything evaporates.   Even metals like iron and gold.

(Just NOT that quickly, mind you!)   But they do.   In tiny quantities, that we can measure.

Leave a gold brick out, come back in a jillion years, and it will be gone.


The densest element is Osmium, at 22.6 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3).

For comparison, lead is 11.3 g/cm3.


What’s the most expensive element?

It’s not gold, or platinum, or palladium.

It’s Californium:  a man-made radioactive element that’s only synthesized in microscopic quantities.

It costs something on the order of $30,000,000 a gram.

(Or hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars a pound.)

Not surprisingly, they haven’t made too much of it.


My favorite element name (and my niece’s too) is:


That’s what they call Element Number 111.

It’s chemical symol is Uuu. 😀

Except now they’ve recently changed the official name to Roentgenium.

(Though I admit, I kinda like the old name better!)


Putting aside the nuclear threat, Plutonium is pretty amazing, when you come to think about it.

It wasn’t mined and extracted from ore.    It was MADE by us humans.

We basically fiddled around with the nucleus of uranium atoms, and MADE a new element

And not just in tiny amounts.  But big chunks of it.  A new metal that we can see and touch,  with it’s own melting points and density, and other physical properties.

And we didn’t just make plutonium, but all the trans-uranium elements as well.

This isn’t just mixing chemicals here…we’ve synthesized ELEMENTS…the Fundamental Building Blocks of the Universe!

Not bad, I think, for hairless cave-apes that not too long ago were trying to figure out how to use fire.


Explore posts in the same categories: Fried Science

Tags: , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

42 Comments on “Perfesser Friar gets Elemental.”

  1. Brett Legree Says:

    Californium is also a staple of bad “spy vs. spy” fiction – if you could make enough of it, and construct a rifle bullet out of it, there would be enough of it in there for critical mass.


    Nuclear rifle bullets, complete with the Earth shattering *KABOOM*

    Oh, and if you leave a gold brick out it will be gone a lot faster than a million years 🙂

    (“Hey, you took my gold brick! Stop! Thief!”)

  2. Friar Says:


    Except it would be a DAMNED expensive bullet! (It would be much cheaper to just make a regular nuke!) 🙂

    Hmmm…maybe I should have used an example, other than gold!

  3. Brett Legree Says:

    Yeah, but you know the military… since when has price had anything to do with it when they can get THE COOLEST TOYS!

  4. Steph Says:

    Awesome! I love these posts! You make science fun. I still don’t get astatine, though, even after reading the link you put there. It’s very interesting to me that it exists!

    Brett: LOL!! That was funny about the gold!!

  5. Brett Legree Says:

    You know what else is interesting about gold (and platinum, silver, etc. – precious metals)?

    People pay more for diamonds than they do for gold.

    Yet, we can make diamonds in a laboratory, inexpensively, and without flaws. All natural diamonds are flawed. We can make them perfectly, and for not much money.

    We cannot (yet) make gold.

    What is here on Earth was basically created when the universe was created.

    So tell me again why diamonds cost more than gold? 🙂

  6. feefifoto Says:

    Hey Friar, thanks. You’ve taken a subject about which I have very little understanding and even less interest (sorry — English major) and made it understandable and interesting. My favorite part is the bit about evaporation. What happens to evaporated metals? Do they just become part of the atmosphere? And why does this happen? Are metals just “super-cooled” liquids?

  7. Friar Says:

    Astatine is a radioactive element. It’s usually made in nuclear reactors. It has a short half-life. Only 7 hours. Meaning it breaks down extremely rapidly into lighter atoms. Within days, most (but not all) of it will be gone.

    But some of it DOES exist naturally, in the earth, from billions of years ago. Almost all of it is gone…but a few atoms here and there still exist. Which is why it’s so scarce.

    It never ceases to amaze me how couples are willing to spend THREE MONTHS’ salary on a hunk of yellow metal and a piece of carbon.

    The same carbon you get on burnt toast (just in a crystalline form!)

    So why don’t we just give our wives BURNT TOAST as an engagement ring?

    (Oh, Yeah…THAT’LL WORK!) 🙂


    Good question!

    Everything has a “vapour pressure”. That is, some of it’s molecules will want to break free from their solid form, and turn to gas.

    Just how much depends on the ambient pressure, the temperature, and the physical properties of the substance. There’s always a balance between the solid and vapor.

    Take a kettle of water, for example. It boils at 100 Celsius, and in a short time, if left alone, the kettle will be empty, all the water will have gone to vapor.

    Then, take the ice cubes in your freezer. You’ve seen them shrink in the tray, right? Some of that frozen water has evaporated and turned to vapour (even though it’s freezing). But it happens more slowly. It takes days or weeks.

    Basically, the same thing happens with metals. For example, at a high enough temperature, iron will boil (at 2750 C)! and turn to vapor.

    But at room temperature, some of it will also evaporate. Just that the iron atoms like to grab onto each other much more strongly than water molecules do.

    So very VERY FEW iron atoms will break away from the metal and fly off into vapor. (Think of the ice cubes, only MUCH slower). In fact, so few, that for all intense and purposes, we can consider the evaporation rate to be zero.

    What happens to the evaporated metal?

    Well, think of your freezer again. There’s a vapor-solid balance, or equilibrium. If your freezer is poorly ventilated, if too much ice turns to vapor, it will re-solidify again, and you’ll get frost on the freezer walls.

    Same thing with metals. The vaporized atoms will float around in gas form, and will re-solidfy elsewhere, according to the vapor-solid equilibrium.

    But there’d be such a small number of these metal vapor atoms floating around, that we can essentially ignore them in our everyday life.

    Hope this answer helps.

  8. Aside from floaty little birthday balloons with princesses on them, what else do we use helium for perfesser?

  9. Friar Says:


    Helium’s actually got quite a bit of uses beyond kids balloons or the Goodyear Blimp.

    It’s used as a coolant in some nuclear reactors, and in MRI machines. Also used as an inert gas in welding, and in growing semiconductor wafers.

    They’re actually concerned that there might be a pending helium shortage (like oil, there is only so much available on the planet).

    Here’s the link:

  10. Karen JL Says:

    @ Friar – GEEK.

    (are you sick of me yet?)

    I actually second Janice’s question.

  11. Friar Says:


    Hey, Comic-Book Girl! 😀

    As for my answer…see what I wrote Janice.

  12. Karen JL Says:

    @ Friar – Yes, I see…we both published at the same time, but I look like an idiot now. Thanks a bunch.

    “Comic-Book Girl”! How dare you, suh!
    *slaps him across the face with leather glove*

    *then inserts brick into glove and slaps him again…Bugs Bunny style*

  13. Friar Says:


    (Insert “Glove Slap” song from the Simpsons here).

    And (to quote Bugs):

    “You better plug him again, Mac, just to make sure!”

  14. panchitah Says:

    Great post! I love it that you’re able to put together the most hilarious yet insightful thoughts…

    “Fossil atoms” neatly packaged in a clean to-the-point sentence. 🙂 “Lame atoms” evaluated. You’re a genius!

    “Shiny atoms”… I was recently at the observatory in L.A. and they had a display of all the elements arranged in display boxes stacked up into the periodic table. It was very cool, but I remember commenting that many of the metals looked identical… There’s nothin very remarkable about being shiny I suppose. Metals: the boring atoms.

    At the risk of sounding stupid, the density of metals are mass/volume… so if osmium has twice as much mass than lead in a given area, what makes up the difference? air? vacuum? mini galactic particles?

    And I would love to have a piece of carbon before it gets to its fully transparent form… I think it would be cool in a ring 😛

  15. Kelly Says:


    Okay, that helium info is just effing cool. I didn’t know it all escapes the Earth! Wow!

    Leave a gold brick out, come back in a jillion years, and it will be gone.

    Leave it out in my neck of the woods, come back in five minutes… whoosh. (Like Brett said.)

    Science, indeed. Try sociology. 😉

    Brett—why diamonds? Marketing. Try telling your girlfriend you’re getting her a band w/o a rock in it for an engagement ring ‘cuz it’s more rare. Just try.

    Friar, you are SO unromantic. “Hey Claire! I’ve got a ring of burnt toast for you!”




  16. Friar Says:

    Different atoms have different diameters, different numbers of electrons orbiting them, and different surface charges. So they join together differently.

    To think of an the extreme case, consider some watermelons packed into a box. You can only fit in so many, and there’s lots of empty space. But think of the same box, packed with tangerines. You can get a different amount of fruit into the box, based on the size.

    It also depends on how the atoms arranged together. For example, carbon atoms can arrange themselves into 6-sided rings all joined together, which gives you and you get graphite.

    Or the carbon atoms can join into a tetra-hedron shape, with each carbon joined to four others. That gives you a diamond (the “transparent carbon” you so much would like to have). 🙂

    So the bottom line is…density it depends on closely the atoms pack themselves together.

    So, yes, the difference IS the space between atoms. (But these empty spaces are on the atomic scale…too small to contain air molecules!)

  17. Friar Says:


    That’s why the smaller planets don’t have hydrogen/helium atmospheres.

    But the gas giants like Jupiter do (because they’re large enough, that their gravity is strong enough to hold onto these flighty gases!).

    Yeah, yeah. I know…the gold brick was a BAD example. Maybe I should have made it Ytterbium. 🙂

  18. Friar, Friar, Friar,

    One guess why you are still single…..No clue? Hmmm..can we say “Burnt Toast Engagement Ring???!!!”

    Oh, Friar Mom, can you PLEASE explain the girl thing to your otherwise brilliant son?

    I can just see the poor girl now, “Oh Look, I just got engaged!”

    “But…what’s happening to your ring?”

    “Oh, just a few crumbs, that’s all, but isn’t it purdy? The Perfesser picked it out ALL BY HISELF!”

  19. Friar Says:


    Well, I can always buy them a Cubic Zarcabian! 🙂

  20. Allison Day Says:

    As always, I love your science posts. 😀

    Now here’s a question for you… kind of random and unrelated, but it’s what I thought of when I started reading your post:

    How do you calculate the energy of a photon? E=mc^2, but a photon has no mass! So…?

    This is the one problem that always tripped me up in my modern physics class, and it’s been bothering me ever since. Sure, I could have asked my professor, but… I’m too shy. 😦

  21. Friar Says:


    Photons have no mass, but they DO have energy and momentum. The energy is proportional to it’s wavelength (λ):

    E = h*(c/λ)

    where h is Planck’s constant. They figured this out in the late 1800’s to help explain black-body radiation. It was the start of quantum physics.

    When you know the energy, you can back-calculate m = E/c^2 to solve for mass.

    But this is just abstract, because the photons can’t HAVE mass. Consider it the “mass-equivalent”.

    (Yeah, I know that’s weird). That’s the way quantum physics and relativity are!

  22. Allison Day Says:

    Yay! Friar, you’re AWESOME.



    How is it that you were able to explain it so clearly, when I had a whole quarter of this at my university and still didn’t get it? I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again… if only I had Perfesser Friar to teach me… I’d have my physics degree easy as can be. 😉

  23. Friar Says:


    Well, thanks for the compliment! 🙂

    When I studied this stuff in undergrad, I had crappy profs and I didn’t understand it either. But now, years later, when I read makes sense.

    Maybe the secret is to let it percolate in your head for a while. You have to Un-learn what they taught you and eventually figure it out yourself.

  24. We actually have a Federal Helium Reserve AND someone paid to be in charge of it!

    Is there a science ABC’s in the Friar’s lexicon? I’ll bring the milk and cookies. 😉

  25. Friar Says:


    Hahah! I can just picture the Federal Helium Reserve meetings. They sit around a table, inhaling balloons and talking like Donald Duck. 🙂

  26. LMAO!!!!

    Yes, And wild junkets by blimp….

  27. Friar Says:


    Oh!!! The Humanity…!!! 😀

  28. Allison Day Says:

    @Friar – *…percolating…* 😉

  29. Friar Says:


    Have you read John Gribbin?

    He’s written a lot of books on quantum physics, in an easy-to-read language (With no equations).

    That’s really helped me understand some of this stuff.

  30. ROLLING on the floor!

  31. I so want to see one of their agendas. 😉

  32. Allison Day Says:

    Nope, I haven’t, but I’ll keep him in mind. *heads off to the bookstore*

  33. Friar Says:


    Yeah, I wonder how they decide to allocate the Helium?

    Little Timmy’s Birthday Party: One tank
    Boson the Clowns’ Evil Circus: Ten Tanks
    SuperBowl Half-Time Show: 1300 tanks.
    Macy’s Ugly Mascot Parade: 6700 tanks.

  34. Yes. And those MRI’s and space launches, rationing there?… Now should we allow helium to send Paris Hilton on her space tour ( she has paid for a spot) ? Or has she used her allotment with party balloons?

  35. Friar Says:


    Oh, MRI’s and space launches. Not important. Our priorities are to use helium to fill colored rubber sacs.

    Don’t forget the monthy allotment to pressurize Caillou’s head! 😉

  36. Ed Says:

    @ Friar. Really great stuff. I loved the way you made science both clear and funny.

    A question along the line of transparent carbon if I may? In one Trek movie, transparent aluminum was mentioned. Is this possible in theory?

  37. Friar Says:


    Hmm…you stumped me there. I don’t know the mechanics of what makes things transparent.

    But if what Star Trek tells me is true, I’d be able to write down the entire process for transparent carbon by typing on a computer for 60 seconds. 🙂

  38. Brett Legree Says:

    Random configuration of the molecules makes things like glass and water transparent (basically). The raw materials used to make glass are not transparent, but become so when melted.

    I think I read somewhere about a year ago (probably Slashdot) that someone was looking into making transparent “metals” but they wouldn’t be very strong, at least, not compared with normal metals.

  39. Friar Says:

    @Brett and Ed

    It depends on atomic-bonds. Some scatter light more than others. For example, the Azo-compounds are often colored, I think the double-bond nitrogen has something to do with it.

    There are a few mentions of “White carbon” on google, that’s supposed to be transparent. Though I don’t know if it’s theoretical or if they’ve actually made some in the lab. There isn’t much info.

  40. Friar Says:


    Actually, I recently read (in both a “real book” and Wikipeda 😉 ) that water is not really transparent, it’s actually a BLUE colored compound.

    Here’s the link

  41. t.sterling Says:

    Helium is quite fascinating and I never thought of it as an endangered gas. And here I am just filling up balloons and small animals to see how long I can keep them in the air.

    Actually it brings up a question I was asked by a wee child and didn’t have a real answer to: what happens to the lost balloons that are freshly filled and fly up to the sky forever lost? I assume they eventually fall back to earth intact but a bit deflated. A related question, why do those same unescaped balloons look all droopy a few days later? Has the helium found a way to escape? As I ask that question, I feel as though I already know the answer… but I’ve never been sure and it’s never something I think about when I sit at my console of knowledge. Plus I want to give the wee child answers even though they probably could care less about that stupid balloon now.

    The evaporating metal is also wuite interesting and I’d love to try that experiment, but I won’t be around that long to see it disappear. You didn’t give any fun experiements to try like the last lesson learning post… other than evaporating/freezing water. That’s cool and all, but I need another trick to show off after the quarter and small paper.

  42. Friar Says:


    Once a helium balooon gets high enough, the air pressure is so low,the balloon expands until it pops.

    Or it will reach a point at which the air is thin enough that it matches the density of helium, and there’s no buoyancy effect, and the balloon just stays where it is.

    That’s why you see those weather balloons being launched from the ground looking all baggy and loose. They deliberately underinflate them at sea level because the gas will expand considerably at 20-30 miles altitude….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: