Welcome to my fourth “Science Answers” post! If you have a question, you can ask it in the comments here, or ask it in an email. Or find me on Facebook!
Q: (1) How did scientists find elements in the first place? Could there be more undiscovered elements? (2) How did scientists create the periodic table? (3) How do we know that everything is made up of atoms, when atoms are so small that they can’t even reflect light (a necessity for seeing them)? (asked by Mukesh Garbyal)
Really good questions! I was asked these in a comment on my post “Types of Atoms,” and chose to answer them in a post of their own.
Let’s take this apart. I actually want to address the third part of the question first, since it contains a misconception: atoms can reflect light. Their interaction with light is actually why we can see anything in the world.
What you see here is the Trifid Nebula, a vast cloud of gas and dust in space.
In my last post, we explored why it looks the way it does. We discovered that the pink hues of emission nebulae are caused when extremely hot nearby stars “excite” the gas of the nebula itself to emit its own light, which our eyes perceive as pink.
The haze of blue to the right, on the other hand, is the result of light from hot young stars nearby getting scattered among the nebula’s dust particles. It looks blue for the same reason the sky looks blue. We call nebulae like this reflection nebulae.
And the black wisps of dark nebulae are hardly as ominous as they look; they’re simply ordinary clouds of gas and dust, ordinary nebulae, that we can only see because they’re silhouetted by brighter objects in the background.
But nebulae, for all their different names, are actually a heck of a lot more similar than you might think.
If this quote really is from Cecilia Payne, then she had the right idea—at least for a female astronomer in the 1920s. Women in science back then faced an uphill battle to get recognized for any discoveries they made, and Payne was no different.
What’s so special about Payne, you might ask? Well, she wasn’t just one of the many “unsung heroes” of modern science. She was the one who figured out what stars are made of.
Yeah, that’s right. She sent a probe to the sun, collected a jar of star stuff, and brought it back to her laboratory…
Um, no, not really. It wasn’t that easy.
In fact, it was very difficult. She had far too many roadblocks than were fair. But she wasn’t out for money or recognition. She was just in it for the science. And science was what she got…
How hot would you say this star is? Take a wild guess.
Well…sorry, but I’m going to stop you for a moment just to make sure we’re all using Kelvins. The Kelvin scale is like the Celsius scale, except water freezes at 273 K instead of 0℃. 0 K is absolute zero, which is purely theoretical and doesn’t exist.
Now can you guess this star’s temperature?
I’ll give you another hint. This is a real photograph, so it’s impossible for this star to be any star other than our sun. How hot do you think our sun is?
Okay…I’ll tell you. It’s about 5800 K, which—for those of you unfamiliar with Kelvins—is about 5527℃. Kinda crazy, huh?
Next question. How do we know this? I mean, it’s not like we stuck a thermometer in the sun’s surface and actually measured it, right?
It might, or it might not. If it does, you might recognize it as the periodic table of the elements—more often known as simply the “periodic table.” It’s an ingenious way to organize elements that has worked for scientists for quite some time.
To fully appreciate the ingenuity of the periodic table, I’d have to take you through a few chemistry lessons. Never fear, I have every intention of doing so—later. For now, though, I just want to address enough of the world of atoms to talk about stellar spectra.
That just means the spectrums we get from stars, by the way. (Spectra is plural for spectrum.) And that means…well…we’ll talk about it later. Let’s talk about the different types of atoms first.
If you’re from a larger city and haven’t had the opportunity to venture into a place like the desert, you might not know what you’re looking at. That’s the Milky Way, our name for our galaxy.
Inside this galaxy are billions of stars, including our own. Galileo Galilei was the first to discover that it was really many tiny points of light, not just a cloud-like haze across the dark night sky.
We can’t see our galaxy from outside, but we can learn a lot about it by looking out at it from within. It’s difficult. It’s like trying to learn about a building if you can never step outside one of its rooms.
But we can do it, with the help of the spectrograph.
This is the periodic table, and it’s pretty much the most important table in all of chemistry.
All the little boxes on this “table” are elements, the simplest form of matter. You literally can’t break these down further. What’s the difference between an element and a substance, you ask?
Okay, well, think of it this way. In my post on matter and its forms, I used water as an example of a substance. Water has its own physical and chemical properties, it’s not a mixture of anything, and no matter how many times you divide it up, you’ll still have the same thing.
But water can be divided up into different things chemically.