Few things in life will ever feel as natural as the air you breathe, and that’s all thanks to Oxygen. While this gaseous element is always around you, that doesn’t mean it’s cool, calm, and collected; in fact, Oxygen is one of the most reactive members of the periodic table.
Invisible but Abundant
Oxygen makes up about 21% of Earth’s atmosphere; its compounds make up almost half of the Earth’s crust. This means that, although you cannot see Oxygen, you’re always interacting with it in at least one way. Of course, the most obvious way that Oxygen affects humans is through their breathing.
This element is colorless, tasteless, and odorless, but highly flammable. That’s why the proportion of Oxygen on Earth is so important—4% less and it would be very difficult for humans and animals to breathe, 4% more and all organic compounds would be highly flammable. This puts Earth in a proverbial sweet spot, with enough Oxygen to easily maintain life, but not so much that it becomes volatile.
Oxygen began accumulating on Earth around 2 million years ago, as a buildup from plants performing photosynthesis. In this way, the presence of Oxygen on Earth is wonderfully cyclical: as animals respire, they produce carbon dioxide; as plants respire, they utilize that carbon dioxide and produce Oxygen.
Though Oxygen is critical to maintaining life on Earth, it isn’t always delicate with that life. If you’ve ever noticed how fruit browns when its flesh is exposed, you’ve observed oxidation, and it’s occurring in your body as well.
An Obvious Realization
Oxygen had been isolated prior to 1774, but never recognized as a distinct element until that year. Joseph Priestly is credited with having discovered Oxygen as its own element in that year by heating mercuric oxide; Carl Wilhelm Scheele separately completed the same experiment in the same year, but neither of them actually named this newly isolated material.
Instead, the name Oxygen came when Antoine Lavoisier realized that oxygen was necessary in order to form any acid; therefore, the name Oxygen (which comes from the Greek “oxy” and “genes” meaning acid forming) was coined.
Oxygen is present all around you: in the air, the water, the Earth, and even in your body. With this unparalleled abundance, it stands to reason that there are an unparalleled number of functions of Oxygen and its compounds.
Some of the most common Oxygen combinations are likely ones with which you’re already familiar: water (H20), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2), and virtually limitless others that comprise some of the most commonly used products in the world.
A Delicate Balance
Oxygen compounds are important for creating everything from cleaning and sanitation products to your average run of the mill plastics. The reality is that Oxygen is ubiquitous in daily life, so although there are plenty of applications that feature it more prominently than others, it’s worth assuming that whatever you’re touching is reacting with Oxygen on some level.
On its own, Oxygen is important for maintaining life when a person’s lungs fail to function properly, or when the air becomes too thin (Oxygen is too spread out) to allow humans to breathe well.
What’s more, as mentioned above, Earth is in a sort of Goldilocks zone in terms of Oxygen in the atmosphere. Less would be uninhabitable, and more would be unsafe. This fact is asserted even further when considering the fact that insects were able to grow to the size of raptors when the atmosphere contained 35% oxygen several hundred million years ago.
Basically, Oxygen has a great deal of power, and as long as it remains in the right proportion, it’s a huge aid to life on Earth.