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The simplest form of matter.

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Drawing of Sherlock Holmes

Credit: Sidney Paget
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paget_holmes.png
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Who is Sherlock Holmes?

The famous fictional British detective Sherlock Holmes was often said to make the statement “elementary, my dear Watson.” In reality, the closest he ever came to that line was an exchange with Watson in the short story “The Crooked Man.”  Holmes shows shrewd insight into Watson’s activities of the day. When asked how he knew what Watson was doing, Holmes simply replies “Elementary.” Regardless of exactly how he put it, Sherlock was simply referring to what the Free Dictionary defines as “relating to, or constituting the basic, essential, or fundamental part.”


An element is the simplest form of matter that has a unique set of properties. Examples of well-known elements include oxygen, iron, and gold (see the figure below). Elements cannot be broken down into a simpler substance.  Likewise, one element cannot be chemically converted into a different element.

An oxygen tank, a cast iron skillet, and gold bars are examples of pure elements

Credit: (A) Leon Brocard (Flickr: acme); (B) User:Evan-Amos/Wikimedia Commons; (C) Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited
Source: (A) http://www.flickr.com/photos/acme/8532536/; (B) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cast-Iron-Pan.jpg; (C) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gold_Bars.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Chemical elements are the simplest of substances. (A) An oxygen tank like this is used by people with a need for breathing assistance. (B) A simple skillet can be made from cast iron. (C) Gold bars are formed and used for monetary purposes.[Figure2]

Some elements have been known for centuries (gold, silver, iron, copper, among others) while others have been created in the lab only within the last several years. Most elements do not exist as such in nature. They are so reactive that they can be found only in combination with other materials.

Several of the elements are very valuable while others are quite inexpensive. Gold is currently worth almost $1700 per ounce. Aluminum, on the other hand, only sells for about 90 cents per pound, considerably lower than gold. Copper is worth somewhat more, selling for approximately $3.50 pound. Platinum is very valuable at about $1650 an ounce, not quite as expensive as gold. 


  • An element is the simplest form of matter that has a unique set of properties.
  • One element cannot be chemically converted to another element.


  1. What is an element?
  2. How much is gold worth today?
  3. How many elements did we know about when Tom Lehrer wrote his song?


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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Sidney Paget; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paget_holmes.png; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: (A) Leon Brocard (Flickr: acme); (B) User:Evan-Amos/Wikimedia Commons; (C) Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited; Source: (A) http://www.flickr.com/photos/acme/8532536/; (B) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cast-Iron-Pan.jpg; (C) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gold_Bars.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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