The elements that are naturally found in our world are an absolutely fascinating field of study. Just a few decades ago arrogant chemists and physicists claimed we had discovered all the elements that existed. At that time the periodic table consisted of only around 80 elements. Today that number has risen to 118, an almost 50% increase. And we never know if we might discover even more. New elements aren’t just a crutch to be used in science fiction movies.
But, seeing as each element is different and unique in its own special way, scientists, chemists, and physicists all seem to have their own favorite element that they find the most interesting. Much like how you might have a particular preference for a genre of movies, these scientists have favorite elements that were awarded that spot because of some unique quality that specific scientist found to be worthy of favoritism. So, we’ve compiled a short list of some of the most fascinating elements on the periodic table and what exactly makes them so alluring to scientists around the globe.
Carbon makes the list for multiple reasons. For starters, it is a pretty versatile compound; making up the organic building blocks of life as well as other precious materials like diamonds. Secondly, because of its role in the make-up of organic life, carbon can almost singlehandedly be attributed to the reason life exists on Earth. Without carbon, life might not have developed like it has today, if it had developed at all.
In the search for signs of extraterrestrial life, scientists most often look for three things; the presence of water, the presence of oxygen, and the presence of carbon. For our whole understanding of how life formed basically revolves around these three fundamental elements and compounds. The recent discovery of carbon in the shape of simple building blocks of life on a passing asteroid also generated a lot of buzz in the scientific community, and was cause for stronger belief in life existing elsewhere in the Universe.
It is a no-brainer that some scientists list oxygen as being their favorite element. Not only has oxygen been pivotal is the formation of life on Earth because of our need to breath and survive on it, oxygen is also the element that binds with hydrogen to form the most precious of life-sustaining compounds; water. If it hadn’t been for oxygen, life would have been completely different to how it is today.
But that isn’t the only reason oxygen fascinates so many scientists today. Oxygen is also interesting because of the fact that it is just as reactive as it is important in the formation of life. Fire needs oxygen to stay burning, and oxygen would be more than glad to react violently and start one. Also, oxygen in the ozone layer has protected life on Earth from devastating solar radiation from the sun for billions of years. And, fun fact, the reason lifeforms like dinosaurs and various flora were so large millions of years ago was due to the fact that there was more oxygen present in the atmosphere back then.
Hydrogen is perhaps even more interesting than oxygen and carbon combined. This is because the only reason both previously mentioned elements exist is because of hydrogen. In fact, hydrogen can safely be attributed to being not only the precursor to all life, but the whole Universe.
It was hydrogen that eventually fused and formed into everything we know about today. It was hydrogen that eventually formed stars, planets, galaxies, and us. To sum up the crucial role of hydrogen in literally everything that exists today, this quote by Edward R. Harrison sums it up perfectly; “Given enough time, hydrogen starts to wonder where it came from, and where it is going.” A similar saying that doesn’t credit hydrogen as much but still gets the point across goes like, “We are basically the Universe trying to figure itself out from a different perspective.”
The unique aspect that sets mercury apart from every other element on the periodic table is that it is the only metal that exists that is liquid at room temperatures instead of being a solid. It is also quite pretty to look at, as you no doubt know if you’ve ever seen a mercury thermometer in action. Mercury is also pretty toxic for us, and extremely dangerous if we are exposed to it.
Silicon was already a fascinating element back when it was just discovered. It was neither a proper metal, nor was it something else entirely. It is also used all over the world in the form of glass and windows. That is because it is a part of sand, and sand is the main ingredient in making glass items. But if that wasn’t enough, silicon saw a recent boom in popularity all across the globe when modern circuit chips were invented. All of those chips are made of silicon, and they are used in everything; from your phone, to your computer, to your microwave, to your car, to your refrigerator, and so on.
Iron may seem like a very basic element compared to some of the others featured here, but it is just as important as any of the rest of them. Not only is iron obviously extremely important in the modern age because of allowing us to build airplanes, container ships, and cars, it is also important inside our bodies. Iron deficiency can be quite deadly to a person if their diet doesn’t contain enough of the element. Also, it even makes up our planet’s core, without which our planet wouldn’t exist and neither would we.
Uranium is mostly known for less pleasant things; like how enriched uranium is the key ingredient in atomic warhead. The deadly potential of uranium is obviously something we should never, and perhaps never can forget. However, this element is also fascinating in many other ways.
Due to how rich and unstable it is, uranium is actually a source of almost unlimited power if we figure out how to properly harness it. The property that makes nuclear bombs so destructive is nuclear fission. If we could instead figure out how to control nuclear fusion, we would eliminate all the energy crises in the world. Also, uranium is much more common than you might think. It is a lot more common that gold, and you have very likely ingested it more than once in your lifetime in negligible amounts that your kidneys were able to filter out. And lastly, uranium isn’t actually as dangerous to be exposed to as it might seem at first. The radioactivity uranium gives off can reliably be blocked out by your skin, and only ingesting it in large amounts would be dangerous.
Of course, every element on the periodic table is interesting is some way or another. And there is bound to be some scientist out there that likes a relatively boring element the most as well. But this was just a short collection of some of the more exciting ones, and hopefully you probably learned a thing or two in the process as well. If you want to read more about chemists, be sure to check out our post on famous chemists and their discoveries. More of a physics enthusiast yourself? We’ve got an article on famous physicists and their discoveries too.