The media seems to be constantly concerned about the harmful effects of our “carbon footprint.” That phrase refers to how much carbon we kick out into the world’s environment in our daily activities. With all the concern about carbon, it is easy to overlook the fact that the carbon atom design makes life possible and demonstrates God’s engineering wisdom.
The carbon atom is one of the lightest atoms in the periodic chart. The relative weight of the standard carbon atom is 12. Uranium, on the other hand, is 25 times heavier. Carbon’s low weight means that things made of carbon are relatively light. Other elements are structured like carbon, but their weights are much heavier. Silicon is twice as heavy, and germanium is six times as heavy.
The carbon atom design makes life possible. Carbon has six electrons, but they are carefully arranged, allowing carbon to have the properties essential to life. All atoms have electrons orbiting the nucleus at different energy levels as you move out from the nucleus. Scientists give these levels letter identifications because of the spectral lines they produce. In a chemistry book, you will see the letters s, p, d, and f used to describe the spectral lines for electron orbitals of all elements in the periodic chart. The d and f orbitals are incredibly complex, but for carbon with only six electrons, the structure is relatively simple.
Carbon has two electrons in the 1s orbital closest to the nucleus and two electrons in the 2s orbital. They orbit the nucleus in a circular path. The next level out from the carbon nucleus is the p orbital, where electrons move in a figure-eight path. Three energy paths are available for two electrons each, and they are at right angles to one another.
Since carbon has four of its six electrons in the first two orbitals, there are only two electrons in the p orbital. That means there are four available openings in the carbon atom’s p orbital, and it fills those spaces by sharing electrons with other elements. If carbon is bonded to hydrogen, which has only one electron in its first orbital, the two elements will share an electron. In that way, hydrogen has two electrons filling its first orbital, and carbon will have one more of the six it needs to fill its last orbital.
Carbon will have to combine with four hydrogen atoms to complete its p orbitals, and the result is methane (CH4). Oxygen has eight electrons, so it needs two electrons to fill its third orbital, and two oxygens will share electrons with one carbon atom giving us carbon dioxide (C02).
Organic chemistry is incredibly complex since many periodic chart elements can share electrons with carbon creating different organic chemicals. This complexity allows life to exist and makes possible all of the medicines and organic materials that are a part of our everyday life. Carbon atom design makes life possible because of the Creator’s engineering wisdom.
— John N. Clayton © 2020