Recently my husband and I have been doing a lot of crosswords. It’s been nice having something to do that doesn’t involve screens. At the same time, I’ve been using my phone (a screen) to play a crossword-like game with my dad called Kryss. Between the two, I have been spending a lot of time on word games. Some of these puzzle makers are very clever and have very difficult clues. Other times it feels like they got a bit lazy, especially when they use elemental abbreviations as answers.
“Hmm… I don’t know what to do here. I have two letters together that don’t make any words, but hey, they happen to be an abbreviation from the periodic table. Perfect solution!”
Like I said, lazy. It has been a few years since I’ve had to have the periodic table memorized, but a lot of the early two-letter ones come back to me easy enough… Helium (He), Lithium (Li), Silicon (Si), Calcium (Ca), etc. The trouble for me (and my dad and husband) is when you get lower down into the periodic table to the heavier elements, the ones that are SUPER rare and no one ever talks about. Rutherfordium? Rf. Darmstadtium? Ds. Roentgenium? Rg. Those would take me a lot of guesses.
When I was in high school in my first actual Chemistry class, one of the first things we talked about when it came to elements was their composition. You’ve got protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Then you’ve got electrons whizzing around the outside. Easy enough. I mean, that’s what the pretty pictures had shown me for years of what an atom looked like.
Then came the lesson all about electrons and how they’re structured… this is where it got less easy for little 14yo Dani. This is when my teacher started talking about VALENCE ELECTRONS and ELECTRON SHELLS. I was bombarded with pictures like this:
Each of those rings around the orange/red nucleus is an ELECTRON SHELL. Each shell can only hold a specific number of electrons, then it must start filling the next shell. These shells are actually even more complicated than that, but that’s all the further in depth I’ll go today. The outermost shell is called the VALENCE SHELL and the electrons in that ring are called VALENCE ELECTRONS. These are the ones that matter the most for interactions with other elements. Here’s an image of different elements where the valence shell is in red. The gray shells are fully filled inner electron shells.
So why are the valence electrons so important? Every element wants to have a full valence shell. I know I’m putting human emotions on an inanimate object, but this rule is often explained as the atoms desiring to be complete. They want to have full electron shells. As you can see, many do not fit that bill, so they have to get creative. There are two main ways that they get to a complete valence shell, IONIC BONDS and COVALENT BONDS.
In ionic bonds, one element that has too many valence electrons and one with too few get together and agree to transfer their electrons. One common ionic compound is NaCl, also known as table salt. In this interaction, the sodium (Na) has just ONE valence electron, whereas the Chlorine (Cl) only needs ONE electron to have a full valence shell. The sodium gives its electron to chlorine and then both are happy… sort of…
If you’ll notice, Na has a little “+” symbol and Cl has a little “-“ symbol. This means that they are charged ions (because they have a different number of electrons than protons) and thus are unstable on their own. They’re not actually joined to the other atom, but they do have this desire to be stable and so they’re drawn together, in close proximity.
Then you have COVALENT BONDS. Covalent bonds take two or more elements and they bring them together to SHARE valence electrons. This way all of them have complete valence shells. This type of bond is more stable than ionic.
Here’s one example:
- H2O is the symbol of water.
- Water is composed of 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom.
- Each hydrogen atom has 1 valence electron but wants 2.
- Each oxygen atom has 6 valence electrons but wants 8.
- When they come together, everyone is happy.
These discussions of atoms and bonds makes them seem pretty relatable. Not everything about them, but I do understand wanting to be whole and desiring something to complete me.
Our whole lives are spent trying to fill that hole in our lives. We try to fill it with careers, relationships, hobbies, and more. Unfortunately, all of these earthly things will never do the trick. No matter how complete your life looks, you’re going to end up like the ionic bond, still unstable, still needing something else. The only way to be truly whole is to be like the covalent bonds and the only thing that joins us fully like that is God.
Here on Earth we can work towards that wholeness in the Lord, but not until we are in heaven will we be fully united with God. Only then will this yearning feeling for more be completely satisfied. On our way there we must work to fill our time and our lives with these heavenly things. They are the only things that will satisfy our desires. This can be prayer and the sacraments, but it could also be serving God through serving His people.
Think about a typical day in your life. If you took all 24 of those hours, how much of that time is devoted to God? You are spending at least some hours sleeping, so that cancels that out. But what about the rest of the time? You’re eating. You’re going to work. You’re messing around on your phone. Those things will never fully satisfy you. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but it is important to make sure that we devote our whole lives to God, that He is not just an afterthought for an hour each Sunday. The more time that we spend with God, the more filled we become. All of this as a precursor to that infinite joy in heaven. Being completely unified with God will be so beautiful.