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Look inside to find the difference

One of the first questions people ask about the various elements is - what makes them so different.

We know for instance that gold is very unreactive (inert) and therefore will not take part in many chemical reactions. And it is also solid until high temperatures and has that characteristic gold colour, and is also quite rare.

On the other hand, elements can be very different. Oxygen that we breath is both a gas rather than a solid and reactive.

Mercury is liquid and shiny. Some elements, like potassium, are incredibly reactive and simply dropping a bit in water will lead to a volatile reaction as the two react.

Given the manifest differences between different elements, what causes them?

Well, to explain the properties that we see in the macroworld, we need to look at the microworld, at the component parts of the elements.

In other words, we need to zoom in and zoom in even more, which is something that can be done with modern technology, and work out the constituents of the elements.

It turns out that for every element you go up one more proton and one more neutron is added to the nucleus, to helium has two protons and two neutrons, lithium has three protons and three neutrons, and so on.

This, combined with the configuration of the electrons orbiting the nucleus, impacts upon how reactive the element is. Some electron configurations are more stable than others, and those that are less stable result in elements being more reactive.
Why Elements Have Different Properties
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