Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Elements

The Girl and I walked over the grounds of Glendalough, one of our favourite places – a monastery that has nestled snugly in a hollow of the Wicklow Mountains for 1,500 years. Walking among massive old trees and the graves of centuries of ascetics, she and I, we go to church.


On this day she was looking at a cluster of sulphur cap mushrooms, and asked why they were called that. I explained that sulphur is yellow and sometimes toxic, and so are these mushrooms. Do you remember what sulphur is? I asked.

Like hydrogen sulphide? She asked – we had talked about the rotten-egg smell.

Like hydrogen sulphide, I said. Sulphur is an element – a type of atom. There are about 100 other kinds of atoms in the universe, but almost everything in the living world – these trees, cows, polar bears, mushrooms, soil, ICarly – is made of just four things. Remember what those are?

“HONK,” she said, pushing my belly like an elevator button. It’s an inside joke between us, a mnemonic device we created to help her remember Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen and Carbon.

You’re right, I said – it’s a great way to remember it. So almost everything is those four, and several others are also useful – sulphur, silicon, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium. Most metals are single elements -- iron, gold, silver and copper.

But most elements, I said, you hardly ever run into on this planet, or they don’t do much; most people, I thought, never need to know ytterium from ytterbium, or tellurium from tantalum. Anyway, I said, sulphur is not one of those most common elements, but you’ll find it around our world, often in unpleasant things like factory smoke, acid rain and rotten-egg smell.

The Girl listened politely for a moment, and then said, “May I climb that tree?” and seeing me nod she was off again. I stretch her patience a little further each time, hoping that it springs back into shape a little different than before. 

Photo: The Girl at Glendalough.

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