Design in Chemistry Explained by a PhD Chemist
by Dr Henry Richter
Why is chemistry the way it is?
I recently wrote an article “Ode to the Amazing Atom” marveling at the way this elementary particle operates and exists (7 Jan 2019). This is a follow-up to that piece, marveling at how the varieties of atoms exist in ways to produce all sorts of different chemical elements.
Universal Building Blocks
There are now about one hundred twenty different chemical elements, whose atomic structure varies only slightly from one to the next. About 25 of those are so radioactive they do not exist in nature but have only been made in the laboratory.
Atoms are the fundamental building block of all matter in the universe. The number of atoms in one ounce of iron for example is enumerated in what chemists call the Avogadro number and is 0.6023 x 1024 which is really a whole lot! [600 billion trillion atoms in one ounce!] So atoms are really, really tiny. So how are elements built up through the atomic structure? Let’s see how the chemical properties of the elements differ wildly with just a few changes in the content of the atom. It does turn out that the general property of elements shows patterns of repeating characteristics (gas, metal, non-metal, etc.) in certain sequences of the growing atom structure. The pattern of this repetition can be explained as more and more protons are added to the atomic nucleus – but not why.
The following is distilled from the book General Chemistry by Linus Pauling (Freeman Press 1953). This is the textbook used in Pauling’s general chemistry course taught at the California Institute of Technology where for two years I was a graduate teaching assistant in the course. Dr. Pauling gave the general lectures, where the freshman students were then gathered into sections with a dozen graduate teaching assistants holding detailed classes and supervised laboratory work.
Atoms consist of a nucleus with one or more protons and none to a large number of neutrons. The nucleus is surrounded with a cloud of electrons whirling at speeds approaching the speed of light. The cloud of electron is divided into shells, very precisely defined. The shells have differing numbers of electrons possible, and somehow the electrons are placed properly in each atom. In a neutral atom (no net electric charge) the number of electrons matches the number of protons in the nucleus. The atom can lose or gain electrons to become an ion, but the change in the number of electrons does not change the chemical nature of the atom/element.
Let’s look at the big picture. Chemists have a scheme called the periodic table of the elements. The elements populate the table lined up by their atomic number which is the number of protons in the nucleus. They are grouped into rows, and the vertical columns across the rows contain elements of similar characteristics. The column may be noble gases (column 0), reactive metals (column 1), other metals, non-metals (column 4 and up), and reactive gasses (column 7), as will be explained later on. Here is the table:
It turns out that there is a physical basis for the table, and this has to do with the electron shell of the atom. The first shell, the so-called K shell can accommodate only two electrons, so only the first two elements have only a K-shell, hydrogen (one electron) and helium (two electrons). The next element has three protons and therefore three electrons, and then the next shell is needed for the third electron. The next shell is called the L-shell and can accommodate eight electrons. That shell is progressively filled with electrons until there are eight and then it is full. This corresponds to the second row of the table with elements three to ten, the latter having ten electrons with two in the K shell and eight in the L-shell.
Add one more proton making eleven now, a new shell is again added, the M-shell, which can accommodate up to eight more electrons. Atomic number eleven gives us the metal: sodium. And the process continues as you move up the scale of adding to the size of the nucleus. I should mention at this point there has been no mention of adding neutrons in addition to protons. Adding neutrons affects the atomic weight, but not the basic nature of the element. In Pauling’s book, he publishes a chart of how the electron shells accumulate and increase as protons are added. In the illustration, as one moves up the atomic number scale, it needs to be recognized that all the basic shells are retained, with new shells added. This chart mentions electron spin which we will not deal with here, except that electrons do spin, and they enter the shells in pairs of opposites. Electrons have always spun, since they were each created. What keeps them going? That is original perpetual motion! The chart showing electron shells is:
Now let me point out some interesting features that these two tables show. First, looking at the periodic table with its rows and columns, if you look at the columns all the elements in the column have pretty much similar characteristics. For example, column 0 starts with the noble gas helium and the rest of the boxes going down with neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon are also noble gasses. Then column 1 starting with lithium and going down are pretty much reactive metals. This column starts with lithium, then sodium (reacts strongly with even water), potassium (reacts so strongly with water that it bursts into flame), then rubidium, cesium and then francium. Column 2 starting with beryllium is all reactive metals including magnesium, calcium, strontium, barium, and then radium. Column 3 has more metals starting with boron, then aluminum, selenium, yttrium, lanthanum, and actinium. Actually Column 3 starts the transition from metals to non-metals called metalloids with boron, then diagonally to silicon, germanium, arsenic, antimony, tellurium, and polonium.
Something interesting happens. Between columns 4 and 5, several rows down the table 14 elements show up called the rare earth metals, and just below these are nine elements called the uranium metals. Note that the left side of the periodic table contains elements called metals. The right side are non-metals. The non-metals are from Column IV with familiar carbon, the source of all life, and moving across to nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, etc.
Now think about this: what makes the vertical columns is the addition of additional shells to contain more electrons as protons are added. Let’s look at Column 1. All the newly added shells (above shells which are completely filled with electrons) have just one electron position. This gives each element metallic properties. Column 2 now has the second electron position available, and everything in this column still has metallic properties. As you move across the table to the right, each column has progressively one more electron position available, and moving down each column we see that each element has similar properties. How does this happen?
Elegant, Functional Design
The thing that gives each element its unique characteristic is the number of protons in the nucleus. The number of electrons surrounding each nucleus can vary, from an even match of electrons to protons for an electrically neutral atom to a negative ion-atom if an extra electron is added, or a positive ion-atom if an electron is missing. But it is the number of protons that characterize the element, not the number of electrons present. Also the number of neutrons in the nucleus can vary without changing the characteristics of the element, only affecting the atomic weight – except in the radioactive elements, the number of neutrons plays a large role in the degree of radioactivity of the isotope, such as Uranium (U238 versus U235 – used in bomb making).
Now my bottom line question: how could nature construct itself to make such a marvelous and perfect constitution? To construct everything in the universe to be based on such a foundation of minor changes in atomic structure resulting in widely differing types of matter. Just adding one proton to an atomic nucleus can change the resulting element from a gas to a metal. Wow! Well, that is the way our universe operates, and this is way beyond any accidental assembly of nature. Think about this. The kind of super-intelligence and super-creative power that was required to put it all together vastly exceeds our understanding. At the very least, it leaves us awe-struck. And it all works perfectly!
Recommended Resource: Watch this short film by Illustra Media to see how many atoms fit in a grain of sand or a drop of water.
Dr. Henry Richter was born in Long Beach, California, and served a short tour of duty in the U.S. Navy in World War II. From there he received a BS and PhD (Chemistry, Physics, and Electrical Engineering) from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena California. Then he went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which became part of NASA. While there he headed up the development of the free worlds first earth satellite, Explorer I. He then oversaw the scientific instrumentation for the Ranger, Mariner, and Surveyor Programs. From JPL, he went to Electro-Optical Systems becoming a Vice President and Technical Director. Next was a staff position with UCLA as Development Manager of the Mountain Park Research Campus. He then owned an electronics manufacturing business and afterwards became the Communications Engineer for the L.A. County Sheriffs Department. Since 1977, he has been a communications consultant to Public Safety organizations. He is a life member of APCO, the IEEE, and the American Chemical Society. His book America’s Leap into Space details the origins of rocketry and his own role in the launching of the first American satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. Henry Richter is also author of Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers, with co-author David Coppedge (Creation Ministries International, 2016). Creation-Evolution Headlines is honored to have Dr Richter as a contribution writer. See his Author Profile for his previous contributions.