Ch. 7: The Cosmos on the Table
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Author:  Chris OConnor [ Thu Oct 12, 2017 2:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Ch. 7: The Cosmos on the Table

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Ch. 7: The Cosmos on the Table

Please use this thread to discuss this chapter.

Author:  Cattleman [ Mon Dec 11, 2017 12:07 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 7: The Cosmos on the Table

I must admit I was a bit confused by the title of this chapter, until I learned Tyson was not talking about the dining room table :-, but the periodic table of the elements. :? The periodic table, developed by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (also spelled Mendelev or Mendeleyev) in the late 1860s-early 1870s. The chemical element Mendelevium (atormi number 101) is named after him.

Tyson moves from the speculative to the (largely) known here; he discusses the abundance of the elements in detail, Hydrogen being the most abundant, and Helium coming in second. He also cites the abundance of oxygen and carbon, noting their importance in the makeup of living organisims. I was disappointed that he omitted nitrogen (though he does include that element in a later chapter), as CHON is perhaps the most important acronym in the life sciences. He also omits phosphorus (chemical symbol P), which Isaac Asimov described as "life's bottleneck, " in an article so titled in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. April, 1959. Okay, Tyson may be forgiven this omission; after all, he is writing about astrophysics, not biochemistry.

However, Tyson does wander into chemistry is his description of how a "poisonous, reactive metal that you can cut with a butter knife" (Sodium, or Na) and "a smelly, deadly gas" (Chlorine or Cl), "when added together they make sodium-chloride, a harmless, biologically essential compound better known as table salt."

Tyson concludes this chapter with a "travelogue" of the elements, far too nmerous to repear here.

I must add my own brief note to this discussion. More years ago than I care to remember, I read a short story/novelette titled "Omnilingual" by H. Beam Piper, Astounding Scidence Ficiton, February, 1957. In the story, a group of astro-archaeologists on Mars are trying to 'unlock' the language of a long dead civilization. One comments that they need a "Rosetta Stone." They find one, when investigating a college-type classroom they come across a periodic table of the elements. One of the party deduces that this is not only a 'bilingual' tool, but an 'omnilingual,' a the periodic table is universal. You can find "Omnilingual" on line via Project Gutenberg at

This story has been stuck in my memory ever since I read it; when I saw the motion picture "Arrival" with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, I wanted to scream at the screen, "Show them a Periodic Table!" :angry:

Author:  Harry Marks [ Fri Dec 22, 2017 2:57 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Ch. 7: The Cosmos on the Table

I also thought of "Omnilingual". It is one of the most fascinating insights into the "relevance" of science that the periodic table is a universal, shared by life anywhere with life anywhere else. It inspired a little awe in me when I first read that story, and still does. Sort of like looking at the moon when you are separated from your true love, and realizing she could be looking at the same moon at the same time.

I enjoyed NGT's riffs on the elements. It was fun to see disparate aspects pulled together into a sort of "highlights" survey. Primo Levi did a similar thing with much longer and darker meditations on particular elements in his book "The Periodic Table".

I would have liked to see a little more speculation on the abundances. In particular, it is kind of obvious why hydrogen, and to a lesser extent helium, dominate the matter in the universe. It is just not that easy to get protons and neutrons to squeeze together closely enough for the strong nuclear force to hold them into one atom. So most atoms are single protons (with a relatively few isotopes having neutrons). And the next most common is two protons, with a couple of neutrons thrown in.

So if that is the main determinant, why don't we see much more boron and lithium and beryllium than oxygen, carbon and nitrogen? It must be something about the manufacture of heavier elements inside stars, but I would have liked to hear the story.

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