Rare Indeed

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What’s the most common element in the universe?

That’s easy. Not even close. Chemists estimate that 92% of all the atoms in the cosmos are hydrogen – the simplest element on the periodic table, comprised of one proton, one neutron, and one electron.

What’s number two? Also a no-brainer. It’s helium, the second element with regard to atomic number, representing 7% of the material universe.

That means that everything else – all the other elements we see in Mendeleev’s celebrated periodic table – add up to just 1% of visible reality. As science reporter Sam Kean puts it in The Disappearing Spoon, his exploration of the fascinating backstories of the elements, virtually everything we see around us on Earth represents just a “rounding error” when it comes to the volume of stuff in the cosmos.

What’s the most common naturally occurring element on Earth? 

That would be oxygen. Followed by silicon. Then comes aluminum, which few people suspected even 150 years ago.

As recently as the 1880s, aluminum was considered more precious than gold, silver, and platinum. That’s because of its unavailability. No one had figured out how to produce it in large quantities.

Visitors at the 1855 World’s Fair stared at a display of aluminum bars as if they were looking at England’s crown jewels.  Napoleon III of France hosted a banquet where the most honored guests were given aluminum utensils, while everyone else had to settle for eating their soup with spoons of gold.

When America’s first president was honored with a 555-foot stone obelisk in the nation’s capital, the builders decided to top the Washington Monument with a nine-inch capstone of pure aluminum.

That’s right: America showered love on its most iconic chief executive with the same material that is currently chilling my next Diet Mountain Dew.

What changed?

Geologists discovered that aluminum is almost literally as ordinary as dirt, bound up with more than 270 other substances. Metallurgists ultimately learned how to transform an ordinary-looking rock called bauxite into all the aluminum the world would ever need. Aluminum’s value on the global market immediately collapsed, with little prospect that it will ever rise again.

So, what’s the rarest element on our planet? 

That would be astatine, element #85, followed closely by francium, #87. Both are highly radioactive substances, which means they don’t stick around very long.

Francium is so fragile that it’s basically useless. Its most stable isotope lasts only 22 minutes before it transmutes into something else. Realistically, no one will ever be able to gather enough francium atoms even to create a visible sample. Kean points out that even if a scientist could make such a thing happen, a tiny blob of radioactive francium would “murder” him in a matter of minutes.

But when it comes to rarity, there’s nothing quite like astatine. 

Earth is comprised of six million billion billion kilos of matter. The total amount of astatine, as Kean puts it, is “one stupid ounce.” 

He then provides a memorable illustration. Suppose you owned a car. Let’s call it a Buick Astatine. You know you left it parked somewhere in a garage, and you need to keep searching until you find it. But the first parking garage you come to is 100 million spaces wide, has 100 million rows, and is 100 million stories high. Oh, and there are 159 other such garages where your Astatine might be parked.  That’s how hard it is to find a single atom of element #85 on our planet. Kean concludes that, all things considered, you’d be better off walking home.

Why did God create such a strange world, with such wonky elements in such short supply?

That’s a matter worthy of debate for philosophers and theologians.

Here’s an easier question: Is there anything that the Bible calls “rare” when it comes to God’s relationship with humanity?

The answer is yes. In Romans chapter five, the apostle Paul marvels at the way God chooses to love such completely inept creatures as the ones you and I see in the mirror every morning. He writes:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely [there’s that word] will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

Sacrificing one’s own comfort, resources, and safety to bless another person – even to the point of death – is truly rare. But Jesus did it times eight billion, taking into account the latest estimate of global population, not to mention all those who have come before and all those who are still to arrive in this world.

Jesus didn’t wait for us to get our individual acts together. He didn’t wait for us to do a better job of balancing our ledgers between sin and virtue.

None of us, after all, could ever have pulled off such self-improvement.

Prompted by sheer, undeserved grace, he loved us. He died and rose again for us. And now he lives for us, within us, and through us by means of his Spirit.

No other religion, creed, or ideology has ever promised such a thing, let alone imagined it. 

Of all the wonders in the universe, the matchless grace of Jesus the Messiah is rare indeed.