Notes from the Summer Session: Week 3

This week it was all about electrons, those atomic hipsters who just really want to chill at the lowest possible energy level and are pretty much all governed by the ones on the fringe, who just want fulfillment in the form of eight outer electrons. Electrons are really as much philosophy as science, so we spent a lot of time dealing in metaphors. Ultimately, we were able to make sense of some of the trends of the periodic table, including the way atoms actually get smaller as they move across the rows because the growing nucleus is just so attractive to the circling electrons and the way that elements in the first columns will shed an electron as easily as we change our hair color, but the last few columns require tremendous energy to even think about giving up an electron. Thinking this through gave us the opportunity to draw many Lewis dot structures, which are utterly and absolutely satisfying once you get the hang of them.

We also talked about helium, the most self-satisfied of all the elements with its totally full outer shell and complete lack of desire to form connections with other elements. That’s why it took so long for scientists to discover helium on Earth — decades after they discovered it in space — even though helium makes up about 25 percent of the universe. And our scientist of the week was the man behind the dot structures, Gilbert Lewis, whose work with electrons taught us so much about how they behave and bond. Too bad Lewis himself seems to have been kind of bad at forming bonds himself — he was the most-nominated person to not win a Nobel Prize, partly because he was kind of a Mean Boy. Everyone now wants to write a murder mystery about his mysterious death.