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Stories About Chemistry


71. All in One

In the early thirties of our century geochemists put forward a very interesting hypothesis. According to it any natural sample, be it a piece of stone, a block of wood, a handful of earth, or a drop of water, contains the atoms of every last chemical element known on Earth.

At first it seemed a fantastic assumption. But the eye of analytical chemistry became sharper year by year. New methods of analysis made it possible to detect millionths and billionths of a gram of substance. And it turned out that if the geochemists’ idea was not one hundred per cent correct, still it was not far from the truth.

Indeed, in any stone we may have picked up on a river bank we find silicon and aluminium, potassium and zinc, silver and uranium—almost the whole Periodic System. Of course, most of the elements are present in quantities amounting to not more than a few atoms; but the very fact is interesting in itself.

It would be rather naive to think that all the elements in the stone we found are contained as a single compound. By no means! The stone is an intricate mixture of complex chemical substances. The most important elements in it are silicon, aluminium and oxygen. The content of all the rest of the elements is much smaller, and many of them are present in trace amounts.

So it is in nature. But what about the chemical laboratories? Can scientists prepare a compound whose molecule will contain all the elements of the Mendeleyev Table?

Chemists have prepared very complex substances consisting of more than a dozen elements. But not much more And nobody ever set himself the task of creating a molecular structure wherein all the inhabitants of the Big House are linked by chemical bonds. Not only because they have not had the time to do so, but mainly because it is of little practical interest. It would be very difficult to build such a monstrous molecule.

Difficult, but evidently possible.

It is a rare chemical compound that can be obtained in a single step, by one-stage reaction. If we set ourselves the aim of building a molecule embracing all the chemical elements, we should have to do it in dozens and perhaps hundreds of stages. Such a complex “building” can be erected only by parts.

We shall not undertake to illustrate on paper the formula of even the simplest version of such a hypothetical “all-element” compound for the simple reason that nobody has ever bothered to think of the ways it could be made.

Without a plan, without drawings no structure can be pictured distinctly. All we can do is use our imagination.

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by Ian Ellis
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