What are Elements of Nature?

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Elements don't have to be boring. This lesson uses some pretty cool facts, stories, and history to help you learn about some important elements found in nature: hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus.


Mother Nature has provided us with a lot of elements, substances that cannot be broken down into simpler things by chemical means. Of course, elements don't just have to be natural. Synthetic elements are found on the periodic table as well, most famously plutonium. However, this lesson is going to focus on some of the elements found in nature. We're going to go over some cool facts regarding hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus.

Hydrogen, Carbon, & Oxygen

Hydrogen is the first, so to speak, element as it has an atomic number of 1 and is symbolized by an 'H'. Hydrogen was recognized in 1776 by British scientist Henry Cavendish. Hydrogen, as a word, comes to us from the Greek 'hydro-', which means water, and 'genes', which means forming. So it's the water forming element. And as you know, water has two hydrogen atoms in it. Of all the elements found throughout the universe, hydrogen is the most abundant one. In fact, hydrogen gave rise to, directly or indirectly, all the other elements found throughout the universe. 90% of the atoms in the universe are hydrogen atoms. This amounts to 75% of the universe's entire mass.

Hydrogen's clear-cut importance in nature is going to be hard to top, but we can try with carbon. Carbon has an atomic number of 6 and is symbolized by the letter 'C'. Its name is derived from the Latin carbo, which means charcoal. Carbon is pretty important too. All living matter on Earth is built on a backbone of carbon. So if you ever hear the term 'organic', then you know the organic substance has carbon atoms in it. An inorganic substance does not.

A lot of living beings rely on another element for life. It's oxygen. Oxygen has an atomic number of 8 and is symbolized by the letter 'O'. English chemist Joseph Priestley as well as Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered oxygen independently in the 18th century. Oxygen makes up 21% of our atmosphere. In other words, 21% of the air you breathe is composed of oxygen. That oxygen, of course, is needed by your body and by the bodies of other living beings in order to create energy that sustains life.

Nitrogen, Sulfur, & Phosphorus

Hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen are hard to beat in terms of their fundamental importance to the universe and life. This doesn't mean that nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus aren't important. They are of course, just in different ways.

Nitrogen has an atomic number of 7 and is symbolized by 'N'. It was discovered by British chemist Daniel Rutherford in 1772. Nitrogen is important for a lot of things. For example, DNA, our genetic material, wouldn't be around if it weren't for nitrogen. Nitrogen is also found in the food we eat and it's used in fertilizers to help plants grow. As much as it's conducive to life, nitrogen can also be used to make explosives.

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