Facts About Oxygen

Oxygen, a colorless gas that is oftentimes referred to as Element Number 8 on the Periodic Table of Elements, is the most reactive gas of the non-metallic elements and comprises about 21% of the Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA funded a study that found that oxygen has existed on the earth for about 2.3-2.4 billion years, and it initially came into existence in our atmosphere at least 2.5 billion years ago. Although it is not clear why oxygen suddenly became such a significant element in the Earth’s atmosphere, but many assume that geologic changes on the earth played a large role in the process.

Oxygen has the atomic number 8, the atomic symbol O, and an atomic weight of 15.9994. As stated by the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe. Organisms that require oxygen to breathe, called cyanobacteria, inhale carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen through photosynthesis, as do modern-day plants. It is likely that cyanobacteria are the cause of the first apparition of oxygen in earth’s atmosphere, which is a phenomenon often called the Great Oxidation Event.

The photosynthesis of cyanobacteria was assumably happening long before a prominent amount of oxygen was accumulated in the earth’s atmosphere. A report published in the journal Nature Geoscience in 2014 stated that oxygen produced from photosynthesis began in marine environments around half a billion years ago prior to its initial atmospheric accumulation about 2.5 billion years ago.

While those present on Earth today depend on oxygen, the initial accumulation of this element in the atmosphere was to some extent disastrous. The change in the atmosphere led to a mass extinction of organisms that do not live off of oxygen, known as anaerobes. These anaerobes that were unable to survive in environments with oxygen started to die off.

The primary evidence to humans that oxygen was in the atmosphere took place in 1608, when Cornelius Drebbel, an inventor from the Netherlands, came to the conclusion that heating potassium nitrate caused the release of a gas. That gas went unidentified until the 1770s, when [[three chemists began to uncover it simultaneously. Joseph Priestly, an English chemist was able to isolate oxygen through the process of shining sunlight on mercuric oxide and then collecting the gas that was produced as a result of the reaction. Preistly published this discovery in 1774, making him the first scientist to actually publish these findings about oxygen. Oxygen was given its name from the Greek words “oxy” nucleus and “genes,” which together mean “acid-forming.”

While the presence of too little oxygen can pose a threat, so can the presence of too much oxygen. For example, around 300 million years ago, the earth experienced atmospheric oxygen levels of 35% and insects grew to extreme sizes.

Oxygen is formed through the fusion of a carbon-12 and a helium-4 inside the hearts of stars. However, recently, scientists have gained the ability to study the how oxygen is structured by looking at its nucleus. And in March of 2014, a physicist at North Carolina State University and his group discovered the nuclear structure of oxygen-16. This is relevant because it helps us understand the process of nuclei formation in stars.

An additional group of researchers spent their time studying oxygen’s role in life on Earth. According to researchers at the University of Southern Denmark, animal life appeared long after the Great Oxidation Event, with simple animals making an appearance just around 600 million years ago. Although many people theorize that the appearance of oxygen resulted in the existence of animals, animals were actually not around on Earth during the initial significant increase of oxygen levels in the atmosphere. [[On the contrary|Contrarily|On the other hand], it is most commonly believed that something other than the appearance of oxygen led to the first increase in animal life. While it is possible that increasing levels of oxygen caused varied and diversified ecosystems that are present today, there are still several modern-day animals that can survive in extremely low-oxygen areas in the ocean.

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