Nonmetals, as their name implies, are elements that display properties quite different from those of metals. Generally, they are poor conductors of heat and electricity, and they are not ductile: in other words, they cannot be easily reshaped. Included in this broad grouping are the six noble gases, the five halogens, and eight "orphan" elements. Two of these eight—hydrogen and carbon—are so important that separate essays are devoted to them. Two more, addressed in this essay, are absolutely essential to human life: oxygen and nitrogen. Hydrogen and helium, a nonmetal of the noble gas family, together account for about 99% of the mass of the universe, while Earth and the human body are composed primarily of oxygen, with important components of carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Indeed, much of life—human, animal, and plant—can be summed up with these four elements, which together make Earth different from any other known planet. Among the other "orphan" nonmetals are phosphorus and sulfur, the "brimstone" of the Bible, as well as boron and selenium.

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