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What is an Element?


People often ask me, ‘What is an element?’, and the idea of the element is absolutely crucial to chemistry and, to me, chemistry is really a language.  It’s a language which we can use to construct the world and it’s a language in which our whole world around us…whether you look at the rocks, the minerals, the buildings around us, the devices that we have in our pockets.  All of these things are built, essentially, out of chemistry in one way or another.

So the question is, ‘What are these elements?’  And when we actually do chemistry, what we’re doing is we are assembling this language and you have to start with letters and what you do is you build those letters into words and those words are then assembled into sentences and then the sentences are built up into something larger.  Paragraphs, chapters, eventually books, encyclopaedias and so on.  

So, the element is something really interesting.  It’s like a letter of the alphabet and so if you think about the letters of the alphabet, there are 26 of them and there are A’s and B’s and C’s and D’s and F’s and G’s, all the way through.  And if you open any book you will see that that book is made up of A, B, C and so on, but what they are is patterned into words.  And so, in there you will find a little block of letters that says the word ‘chemistry’ and that has a meaning.  We understand it and we use it in certain places and so, in the same way, when you think about the world of chemistry, there are these fundamental building blocks and we call them the elements and so you start with hydrogen, helium  and lithium and beryllium and eventually you get to the ones that I get excited about like cerium and praseodymium and neodymium and dysprosium.  And the point is that each one is a type.  And so if you start looking at the world around you, you start saying, ‘Oh, well, that’s kind of interesting.  This stuff is made up of dysprosium and oxygen and carbon and arsenic and so on’.  In the same way that if you open up a webpage and start reading or you open a book and start looking there, and you will see that there are A’s and X’s and W’s and H’s.  And so the elements really are the starting point when we want to kind of see how the world is contracted.

They’re the basic building blocks.