By Michael Bhaskar, Published November 26, 2021 2:00PM (EST)
For most of history, it was by no means obvious what was an irreducible material — what we now call a chemical element. But investigators discovered the building blocks of the universe and, in so doing, built an extraordinary foundational account of chemistry.
This history displays an uneven gradient of progress. Some elements, like gold, copper or iron, had been known for centuries. Early experimenters developed an understanding of elements like carbon and sulfur. From there, though, an infrastructure of techniques and tools, knowledge sharing and accumulation was required for exploration to keep going.
Nonetheless, as the picture began to fill out individuals were still capable of making a huge impact. In the late eighteenth century, the British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy alone predicted the existence of elements like potassium, sodium and calcium, and was then able to isolate them. Around the same time the discovery of fundamentals of chemistry like hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen altered the chemical lexicon forever.
Excerpted from “Human Frontiers: The Future of Big Ideas in an Age of Small Thinking” by Michael Bhaskar. Reprinted with permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2021.