Thursday, July 1, 2010


A few weeks ago I started making dinner and turned on the television to watch the news but forgot to change the channel. The show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” came on, which I have to admit I’d heard about but never watched. I decided to listen as I cooked just to see how I did. One of the questions was, which element on the periodic table is known by the symbol Na. I was so excited – I actually knew the answer. Even better, the gal playing the game missed it! It was a small triumph though because she pretty much got all of the other questions correct and I – did not. Apparently, I should be watching that show and not the news.

Symbol: Na / Group: Alkali Metal / Atomic Number: 11

Sodium is most commonly known to us as salt. But our table salt is not pure sodium, it’s actually sodium chloride (NaCl), which is the combination of the elements sodium and chlorine. And if we happen to be on a low-sodium diet, then it’s potassium chloride we are eating. Potassium chloride isn’t as tasty as sodium chloride and has a bitter metallic note to its saltiness, which must be why people prefer regular salt.

When exposed to air, the silvery color of sodium tarnishes, turning white within seconds. What is most interesting about sodium is that it’s extremely explosive. When you throw sodium into water, it rapidly generates hydrogen gas and seconds later ignites with a massive bang spewing flaming sodium in all directions. The other alkali metals react in much the same way, but when sodium reacts with water it produces sodium hydroxide, or Lye which is commonly used as a drain opener.

The salt in our oceans isn’t pure sodium either. It’s mostly sodium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, potassium and sulfate. The elements of this salt “cocktail” arrive from various sources: decayed biological matter, volcanic vents in the Earth’s crust, breaking up of rocks via erosion of mountains, the dissolving action of rain, streams washing particles into the oceans, and even from our atmosphere. This complex salt content of our oceans is why sea salt tastes different from our typical table salt. The elements that make up both are not the same.

So why is the symbol for sodium Na and not So? Sodium comes from the Latin name natrium, which actually comes from the Egyptian name natron, the word for the natural mineral salt.

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

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