The actinides (sometimes called actinoids) occupy the "bottom line" of the periodic table—a row of elements normally separated from the others, placed at the foot of the chart along with the lanthanides. Both of these families exhibit unusual atomic characteristics, properties that set them apart from the normal sequence on the periodic table.
Along the bottom of the periodic table of elements, separated from the main body of the chart, are two rows, the first of which represents the lanthanides. Composed of lanthanum and the 14 elements of the lanthanide series, the lanthanides were once called the "rare earth" metals.
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.
The term "metalloid" may sound like a reference to a heavy-metal music fan, but in fact it describes a small collection of elements on the right-hand side of the periodic table. Forming a diagonal between boron and astatine, which lies four rows down and four columns to the right of boron, the metalloids are six elements that display qualities of both metals and nonmetals.
Table salt, bleach, fluoride in toothpaste, chlorine in swimming pools—what do all of these have in common? Add halogen lamps to the list, and the answer becomes more clear: all involve one or more of the halogens, which form Group 7 of the periodic table of elements.
Along the extreme right-hand column of the periodic table of elements is a group known as the noble gases: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. Also known as the rare gases, they once were called inert gases, because scientists believed them incapable of reacting with other elements.
The phrase "carbon-based life forms," often used in science-fiction books and movies by aliens to describe the creatures of Earth, is something of a cliché. It is also a redundancy when applied to creatures on Earth, the only planet known to support life: all living things contain carbon.
First element on the periodic table, hydrogen is truly in a class by itself. It does not belong to any family of elements, and though it is a nonmetal, it appears on the left side of the periodic table with the metals.
Almost everything a person sees or touches in daily life—the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and so on—is the result of a chemical bond, or, more accurately, many chemical bonds. Though a knowledge of atoms and elements is essential to comprehend the subjects chemistry addresses, the world is generally not composed of isolated atoms; rather, atoms bond to one another to form molecules and hence chemical compounds.
A compound is a chemical substance in which atoms combine in such a way that the compound always has the same composition, unless it is chemically altered in some way. Elements make up compounds, and although there are only about 90 elements that occur in nature, there are literally many millions of compounds.
If chemistry were compared to a sport, then the study of atomic and molecular properties, along with learning about the elements and how they relate on the periodic table, would be like going to practice. Learning about chemical reactions, which includes observing them and sometimes producing them in a laboratory situation, is like stepping out onto the field for the game itself.
Most people have heard the term "oxidation" at some point or another, and, from the sound of the word, may have developed the impression that it has something to do with oxygen. Indeed it does, because oxygen has a tendency to draw electrons to itself.
Reactions are the "verbs" of chemistry—the activity that chemists study. Many reactions move to their conclusion and then stop, meaning that the reactants have been completely transformed into products, with no means of returning to their original state.
In most of the processes studied within the physical sciences, the lesson again and again is that nature provides no "free lunch"; in other words, it is not possible to get something for nothing. A chemical reaction, for instance, involves the creation of substances different from those that reacted in the first place, but the number of atoms involved does not change.
Acids and Bases
The name "acid" calls to mind vivid sensory images—of tartness, for instance, if the acid in question is meant for human consumption, as with the citric acid in lemons. On the other hand, the thought of laboratory-and industrial-strength substances with scary-sounding names, such as sulfuric acid or hydrofluoric acid, carries with it other ideas—of acids that are capable of destroying materials, including human flesh.
To an extent, acids and bases can be defined in terms of factors that are apparent to the senses: edible acids taste sour, for instance, while bases are bitter-tasting and slippery to the touch. The best way to understand these two types of substances, however, is in terms of their behavior in chemical reactions.
Elements and compounds are pure substances, but much of the material around us—including air, wood, soil, and even (in most cases) water—appears in the form of a mixture. Unlike a pure substance, a mixture has variable composition: in other words, it cannot be reduced to a single type of atom or molecule.
We are most accustomed to thinking of solutions as mixtures of a substance dissolved in water, but in fact the meaning of the term is broader than that. Certainly there is a special place in chemistry for solutions in which water—"the universal solvent"—provides the solvent medium.
The term osmosis describes the movement of a solvent through a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution to a more concentrated one. Water is sometimes called "the perfect solvent," and living tissue (for example, a human being's cell walls) is the best example of a semipermeable membrane.
Distillation and Filtration
When most people think of chemistry, they think about joining substances together. Certainly, the bonding of elements to form compounds through chemical reactions is an integral component of the chemist's study; but chemists are also concerned with the separation of substances.