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Intrinsic mediocrity

(published 19 January 2011)

I must admit that a few months ago I wouldn’t have envisaged the pleasure I would garner from time spent with “Semiconductor Devices, Physics and Technology” by S.M. Sze (whose name has such a delicious plethora of connotations attached). Admittedly this evening the pleasure is somewhat enhanced by warm murmurings from the newly-fixed stove (just in time for the cold weather this week, and after the dully unatmospheric electronic heating of Christmas), and a glass of a really rather nice Merlot. However, delving into the world of physical chemistry has a new glow these days, which it has acquired through the light of a desire to understand it, rather than it being an educational formality. But more of insights resulting from (Mr, Ms, Dr, Prof...?) Sze’s words at a later date.

I spent this morning sitting out on the deck, in the unstinting sunshine, finishing reading The Periodic Kingdom, and frankly now have a more fundamental understanding of the nature of chemistry than ever before, thanks to the combined work of Peter Atkins, who wrote the book, and Martin Blissett at the ATI who suggested / loaned it to me. (The more detailed reference for those who are interested is Atkins, P; The Periodic Kingdom, a journey into the land of the chemical elements; 1995; Weidenfeld &Nicolson, London). I have been doing some investigations into group IV chemicals over the last weeks (although P Atkins has now informed me that to comply with the IUPAC I should no longer refer to them as that, rather calling them group 14 chemicals, as proposed by the chemists’ committee), since this group contains, among other interesting things, silicon. Silicon, which is the subject of a significant chunk of my current intellectual and artistic endeavours, is a semiconductor (more about them anon), and as such is fundamental in the world of contemporary technology. But today the striking interest, to a biologist at least, is that carbon is also a group IV (or 14) element, and as a result of its properties as a member of that group has qualities that are indispensable for its role in living organisms. I’m going to quote Mr Atkins directly here, as I am taken with his description:

“... the overarching power of carbon to participate in molecule formation, a power that results in such complexity of structure and collaboration that the alliances it forms become alive and can reflect upon themselves [I think he’s talking about us here]. The essential reason for this latent power... is carbon’s intrinsic mediocrity, it’s lack of self assertion. ... it is neither an aggressive shedder of electrons, as are elements to [its] left, nor is it an avid receiver, like the atoms to its right. Carbon is mild in its demands on the alliances it makes. Moreover it is even content with its own company, and can make extensive liaisons with itself, forming chains, rings and trees of atoms. ... By being in the middle, undemanding and not particularly generous, it can spin lasting alliances rather than hasty conspiracies.”

I am under the impression that statistics, at a gross level, will always reduce the impact of extraordinary outliers by attempting to constrain them with the middling throng. As a result average will always be average, no matter how amazing it really is (although maybe I’m skewing this argument to a normal distribution). This notion saddens me, as I (along with the devil) see the wonder in the detail. And yet today I have been taking real pleasure from the thought that a fundamental prerequisite of life as we know it is the passivity of this rather unexciting element; that intrinsic mediocrity is one of the primary components responsible for the bickering goldfinches on the bird feeder, the snowdrops and violets that are pushing up in the garden, bursting with spring, the fire that warms me as I write.

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