Running out of oil, yes. We’ve all been concerned about that for many years and everyone anticipates a time when the world’s underground petroleum reserves will have been pumped dry. But oil is just an organic substance that was created by natural biological processes; we know that we have a lot of it, but we’re using it up very rapidly, no more is being created, and someday it’ll be gone. The disappearance of elements, though—that’s a different matter. I was taught long ago that the ninety-two elements found in nature are the essential building blocks of the universe. Take one away—or three, or six—and won’t the essential structure of things suffer a potent blow? Somehow I feel that there’s a powerful difference between running out of oil, or killing off all the dodos, and having elements go extinct.
I’ve understood the idea of extinction since I was a small boy, staring goggle-eyed at the dinosaur skeletons in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Bad things happen—a climate change, perhaps, or the appearance on the scene of very efficient new predators—and whole species of animals and plants vanish, never to return. But elements? The extinction of entire elements, the disappearance of actual chunks of the periodic table, is not something I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to. Except now, thanks to Armin Reller of the University of Augsburg.