Atoms and God’s order in the fundamental building blocks of all substance
The Periodic Table of chemical elements
The beauty and organization of God’s creation can be seen all around us in the macroscopic world. Everything we observe from plant life, stars, animals, rocks, air, and water—virtually everything—is composed of 90 naturally occurring building blocks known as atoms. Order starts with atoms and the subatomic particles that comprise them. This orderliness is not a random or haphazard assemblage of particles happening by accident or spontaneously organizing without an intelligent cause. Looking into the nature of atoms, creation is clearly seen. When God created, He brought order to the universe even in the smallest things, for God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33).
Dmitri Mendeleev (1834–1907), a Russian chemist, developed a formal organization of the elements in 1869 after having a dream.1 “I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper—only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.”2 Mendeleev’s table is noteworthy because it exhibits the most accurate values for atomic mass allowing one to recognize trends over the entire array of elements. Mendeleev saw that the 65 then-known elements in the table lie at the heart of chemistry but that it was incomplete. There were spaces where elements could be located but no one at that time had discovered them. Mendeleev predicted the discovery of a missing element he called ‘ekasilicon’ on paper after observing a gap in the Periodic Table between silicon and tin. When the new element was discovered and named ‘germanium’, its properties closely matched Mendeleev’s predictions of ‘ekasilicon’ for atomic mass, density, and melting point.
The Periodic Table
Order and pattern can be clearly seen in the table, one of the most powerful and perhaps least understood tools of science. Atoms’ organized structure leads to predictable attributes and chemical behaviour, so predictions can be made on how atoms will bond or react with other atoms to form complex, multi-atom chemical compounds such as DNA. Atoms are periodic because of the way that subatomic particles are arranged and added to each atom; hence they can be systematically placed in a table. Chemists use this table in their work, and everyone can understand structural beauty from a creator God.
The Periodic Table tells us many things. Most prominent is atom type, distinctively identified by a two letter symbol, its etymology primarily from abbreviations of Latin and Greek names, or the discoverer of the element, and the atomic number of an element Z3 which is equal to the number of protons in the nucleus. The atomic weight is the total weight of protons plus neutrons found in the nucleus.
Comprehension of the Periodic Table’s organization may seem like a daunting task but a fundamental understanding can be achieved after a description of atomic structure. An atom is the smallest unit of matter that has all the chemical properties of that particular substance. This material, otherwise known as an element, cannot be broken down or changed into another substance by chemical means. The structure of an atom consists of protons and neutrons in the nucleus, and electrons that move around the nucleus in specific energy levels, known as shells.
Shells, also called principal energy levels, are designated K, L, M or 1, 2, 3. These in turn are divided into s, p, d, and f orbital types4 (sometimes called subshells) each capable of holding a maximum of 2 electrons. The 1st innermost shell s, can hold up to two electrons, the 2nd shell can hold up to eight (2s2 + 2p6) electrons, the 3rd shell can hold up to 18 (3s2 + 3p6 + 3d10) electrons. The general formula is that the nth shell can in principle hold up to 2n2 electrons. As the atomic number of the element increases, electrons are added systematically, and in a specific and orderly manner to the orbitals as protons are added to the nucleus, called the Aufbau principle. This generally fills the inner shells first before filling the outer ones. The fact that electrons preferentially fill the lowest energy empty orbitals is the basis for determining the electron configuration of the elements and the structure of the Periodic Table. Figure 1 is a simple diagram to help determine the order of shell filling. From this diagram the electron configuration of any atom can be determined. Orbital types have their own characteristic shape as shown in Figure 2.
In the Periodic Table, a horizontal Period, represented by rows 1-7, starts with hydrogen (H) and lithium (Li), and indicates the number of electron shells in an atom. H is the simplest atom with one electron and one proton. Li has three electrons and a nucleus with three protons and four neutrons. The primary determinant of an element’s chemical properties is the valance shell or outermost electrons.
Atoms on the left side of the table might be said to have a loose hold on their electrons, while elements on the right side (with the exception of the Noble gases5) readily attract electrons thereby freely forming bonds with other elements. A chemical reaction or bonding occurs when outer electrons are shared with another atom. The building up of heavier atoms from hydrogen proceeds by adding, one by one, a positive charged proton to the nucleus and a neutrally charged neutron as required for mass number. Each proton is matched with the addition of a negatively charged electron. This systematic addition maintains a neutral atomic charge making a family of elements of similar properties such as, for example, the halogens, starting with fluorine.
A group or family, represented by each of the vertical columns 1-18, indicates the number of electrons in the outermost shell. Moving down group 1, under hydrogen there are the alkali metals—lithium, sodium and so on—which have similar chemical properties in terms of their chemical reactivity. They are all soft metals that react readily with water. This is because they all have one loosely held electron that can be easily lost. The second group, known as the alkaline earth elements, starting with beryllium have 2 electrons that are easily lost. The same can be said about other elements in the remaining columns moving right across the table. The number of electrons and protons is consecutive across the table starting with Z=1 for hydrogen (H) and ending with Z=116 Livermorium (Lv), the heaviest synthetic element6, in the lower right corner. Heavier synthetic elements may also have been discovered up to Z=118.
Progressing from the lightest elements on the left side of the table to the heaviest atoms on the right side of the table, certain properties of the elements approximate those of elements presented above them. These properties occur at regular intervals of 2, 8, 18, and 32 in the group. For example, the 18 group element helium is similar in its chemical behavior to neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon below it. Known as the noble gases, they are inert or unreactive, although krypton and xenon form a few compounds. The chemical family called the halogens, group 17, composed of elements fluorine (Z=9), chlorine (Z=17), bromine (Z=35), iodine, (Z=53), and astatine (Z=85), are extremely reactive and readily bond with group 1 and 2 elements by accepting electrons.
God’s organization of the universe can be seen in the smallest unit of substance, the atom. They are the fundamental building blocks of all materials. Atoms are not chaotic in their assembly but have an orderly arrangement in the way that electrons are added to orbitals, and protons and neutrons in the nucleus. This accounts for their periodic and predictable attributes which a God of order has created.
References and notes
- Garret, A. B., Lippincott, W.T., Chemistry A Study of Matter, Blaisdell Publishing Co., Watham, MA, 1968. Return to text.
- Sharpe, M.E., The Soviet Review Translations, Summer 1967, Vol. VIII, No. 2, p. 38, digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu. Return to text.
- Z from the German Zahl meaning number. Return to text.
- These letters originally came from description of lines in atomic spectra: sharp, principal, diffuse, and fundamental. Return to text.
- Noble gases all have filled orbitals and are in a stable configuration. Return to text.
- In chemistry, a synthetic element is a chemical element that does not occur naturally but is created artificially. Return to text.