Several years ago I read an article in Discover magazine about the end of the universe. It was a pretty spooky description of what the end might be like–even though it’s trillions of years in the future. I think the current theory is that all matter in the universe is currently drifting apart–there won’t be a final “big crunch”. It’ll be a whimper rather than a bang. In the end there will be dwarf stars with hot cores but icy skins, dark and separated by immense distances. Eventually protons will break down and matter will cease to exist. It will dissolve into the background radiation which will, in turn, dissipate.
When I think about that I think about the elements that compose matter. Carl Sagan said, “We are all star stuff.” It’s astounding to think that almost every element originated in the heart of a star, that almost everything from helium up to uranium (and even some of the bigger elements) begins with the fusion of two hydrogen atoms, then the fusion of helium atoms, then lithium, and so on. A friend of mine once suggested that the number of elements might be infinite. And yet it seems like nothing–not even the universe itself–really is infinite. There are limits to everything. Matter isn’t infinitely divisible, nor is its existence infinite.
Anyway, because I’m a wordy kind of guy, I can’t help wondering about the origins of the word element, although it’s unknowable. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “the etymology and primary meaning are uncertain”. There are limits to what’s knowable as well.
On that cheerful note here’s a great rundown of the elements from Tom Lehrer–although you may notice that his song’s actually out of date. There are a few elements he doesn’t mention that are known to Harvard, and everyone else. What we can know may be finite, but we haven’t yet reached the end.
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