By Sister Nancy Linenkugel
Happy New Year 2019! Did you know that the United Nations designated 2019 as the international year of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements? True. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the creation of this table by Dmitry Mendeleev in 1869. The UN wants to boost public awareness of chemistry through the theme. The Periodic Table is truly a significant achievement in science as it has implications for Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and other natural sciences.
While I took chemistry in high school, I confess that it wasn’t top on my priority list. Although not a pre-med student, I still took biology and chemistry in order to be a well-rounded college prep student. Those were the days of the slide rule, not the personal calculator, and I limped along with that mysterious device which I was able to use only for the simplest of the simple calculations. And then I proceeded on to marching band practice each day during football season, not exactly looking forward to chemistry class the next day.
We have chemistry all around us in our world and in ourselves. Soap is chemistry in its ingredients that interact with grease and grime. Wine is chemistry through fermentation from yeast. Sunscreen contains chemicals that filter out dangerous sun rays. Chemical elements are in the air we breathe, in our water, and in our food. Chemical reactions occur when we digest food, when we sweat, when we inhale and exhale, when we take medications, and when we exercise. Do we realize that this is chemistry at large?
Our Sister Barb Stallman, a professor at Lourdes University, holds a PhD in Chemistry and continues to serve over a teaching lifetime to instill an understanding of the Periodic Table among her students. She notes how chemistry is not only foundational in sustainable development but also provides solutions to global challenges in all sectors. The Franciscanism in that can’t be overlooked, which Sr. Barb espouses and applies to daily life.
A friend at Xavier University, Marla Phillips, also holds a PhD in Chemistry and she offers, “The most basic form of every chemical is the atom, which has a nucleus containing protons and neutrons, with electrons spinning in orbital paths around the nucleus. Very crudely, the electrons of different atoms are what connect atoms to each other. Electrons like to be in pairs, so atoms that have only a single electron in an orbit are less stable and want a partner—like humans!”
Marla continues: “In the Periodic Table of the Elements there is a family of elements to the far right referred to as the Noble Gases. These were once believed impossible to combine with anything else to form compounds, but that has been proven untrue. However, the Noble Gases are usually reactive under harsh conditions forcing them to be reactive. This would be like our faith—if grounded in God and nourished, it should be unwavering. But under harsh conditions and influences, we can lose our way.”
There’s a legend about St. Francis of Assisi from the winter of 1224 in which he was responsible for a sack of bread mysteriously appearing on the doorstep of the Friary of Folloni, a place having no food so the monks were in danger of starving. The friary was isolated and it was a snowy winter with no visible signs of any food delivery. How did the bread get on their doorstep? Legend: St. Francis asked the angels deliver it.
Skeptics to that legend abounded, as would be expected, but in 2017 a contemporary scientist at the University of Southern Denmark, Dr. Kaare Lund Rasmussen, used chemical analysis to prove that the sack’s material, subsequently used for centuries as an altar cloth at the friary and after carbon testing, could be traced to the 1220-1295 period. The sack also contained traces of ergesterol, a chemical found in bread mold.
Thanks to chemistry, believers that St. Francis was actually involved in the bread legend now have a foundation to stand on. And we benefit from the science of chemistry, visible or invisible, all around us in daily life. Live on, mighty Periodic Table of the Elements, as we salute your special year in 2019.