the noblest of gases

I have been making my way through The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean for the past few days and so far it has been such an enlightening read.  The book is basically a history of the Periodic Table of Elements and for someone like myself who never took even high school chemistry, it has been a very fascinating read thus far.

My nickname for many moons now with my close friends has been “Xe” (pronounced ‘Zee’) that comes from the first two letters of my name, but which also happens to be the symbol for Xenon on the table.  I actually think my name on MSN Messenger (remember that thing?!) was Xe(non) for a while.  So yeah, whenever I see the table I kind of make it a point to scan the 18th column for my little symbol.

Kean writes that column 18 is made up of the so-called “noble” gasses, which got their name from the idea of the perfect “forms” espoused by the philosopher Plato.  Now let me try to think back to first year philosophy here.  Plato believed that there existed the perfect “form” of all objects in the world which one used to mentally compare actual objects to.  For example, Plato believed that floating out there was the idea of a perfect horse and when one encountered an object that looked like a horse he/she would judge whether the object was in fact a horse by comparing it to the perfect form.  Make sense?

The reason the elements in column 18 align with this idea comes from a fundamental tenant of chemistry. Kean writes:

…atoms that don’t have enough electrons in the outer level will fight, barter, beg, make and break alliances, or do whatever they must do to get the right number.

A lot of this stuff is pretty abstract and very new to me, but the basic idea is that most atoms don’t have enough electrons on the outer layer (normally they need 8) so they will react with other elements in order to fulfill this requirement.  All of the elements in column 18, including my little Xenon gas, have  closed shells with full complements of electrons, therefore they do not react with anything under “normal conditions”.  This is also what made them difficult to identify.

That aloofness from everyday experience, so like his ideal spheres and triangles, would have charmed Plato.  And it was that sense the scientists who discovered helium and its brethren were trying to evoke with the name ‘noble gases.’

Or to put it in into Plato-like words, ‘He who adores the perfect and the unchangeable and scorns the corruptible and ignoble will prefer the noble gases, by far, to all other elements.  For they never vary, never waver, never pander to other elements like hoi polloi offering cheap wares in the marketplace.  They are incorruptible and ideal’.

This all makes me even more nerdily proud to share my nickname with the 54th element!  No hoi polloi around these here parts!  No sir…

yeah yeah!

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