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justin gabbard

5 of Chemistry's Most Talented Elements

Original image
justin gabbard

Kitchen pranks, bathroom alchemy, and the trick to killing Godzilla. Here are chemistry’s most talented elements.

1. Cadmium, The Godzilla Killer

First identified in 1817 as an impurity in zinc, cadmium kept a low profile until the early 1900s, when zinc mining began in the Kamioka mines in central Japan. During the purification process, cadmium was dumped in the Jinzu river. By the 1930s, that waste was affecting locals’ bones, making them incredibly brittle; one doctor broke a girl’s wrist while taking her pulse. Known as itai-itai, or “ouch-ouch,” it took physicians until 1961 to determine that cadmium was causing the disease. Tests showed that local crops were steeped in the metal, which leeched into the rice fields from river water. Cadmium’s atomic structure allows it to bind tightly to metallothionein, a protein in the body’s cells that typically binds to more biologically important metals. When the locals ate rice, cadmium ousted zinc, calcium, and other minerals necessary for strong bones. In 1972, the mining company paid restitution to the 178 survivors of cadmium poisoning who lived or worked along the river. Twelve years later, when filmmakers needed to kill Godzilla in the latest sequel, they relied on cadmium-tipped missiles.

2. Gallium, The Disappearing Spoon

The element of choice for laboratory pranksters, gallium was discovered by French chemist Paul Émile François Lecoq de Boisbaudran in 1875. Though solid at room temperature, the metal melts at just 84°F. That means you— hypothetically, of course—could fashion a spoon out of gallium, hand it to a friend to mix his morning coffee, then watch his eyes pop as the utensil disappears in the hot drink. (Despite gallium’s low toxicity, our lawyers tell us that your pal should not drink up.) Aside from its use in practical jokes, gallium’s ability to withstand a broad range of temperatures as a liquid makes it a handy replacement for mercury in high-temperature thermometers.

3. Phosphorus, The Devil's Element

Today a key ingredient in matches and explosives, phosphorus made its debut in an unlikely place: urine. In 1669, German alchemist Hennig Brand was attempting to create the “philosopher’s stone,” a fabled substance that could turn metal into gold. Alchemists put great stock in the color of substances, and as urine was (more or less) gold, Brand likely theorized he could use it to make gold. By boiling and putrefying large quantities of liquid waste, supposedly taken from beer-guzzling soldiers, the alchemist was left with a black paste. He mixed the result with sand, then heated and distilled it into a white, waxy substance that glowed faintly in the dark, sometimes even bursting into flame when exposed to air! (Hence the nickname “the Devil’s element.”) Brand had no idea that he’d made the first discovery of an element since ancient times; he only knew that his unappetizing project hadn’t produced the gold he sought.

4. Oxygen, The Minty Fresh Secret of Life

As a boy, Joseph Priestley noticed that spiders sealed in jars would eventually die. He knew that his captives had run out of air, but what was left in the jar with the dead spider? Years later, while working as an English preacher, Priestley was still plagued by the question. Then an idea struck: What if there were different types of air? Priestley’s curiosity only grew when he realized that, unlike animals, plants could survive in sealed jars. To test his theory, he began putting candles and mice in jars with sprigs of mint. When his subjects lasted longer with the refreshing greenery, he concluded that plants produce something vital. Priestley later named his discovery “dephlogisticated air,” a clunky term that French chemist Antoine Lavoisier replaced with “oxygen,” after carrying out a series of similar experiments.

In the early 1770s, Priestley shared his observations with his friend Benjamin Franklin, who wrote back, “I hope this will give some check to the rage of destroying trees that grow near houses, which has accompanied our late improvements in gardening, from an opinion of their being unwholesome. I am certain, from long observation, that there is nothing unhealthy in the air of woods.”

5. Seaborgium, The Sore Loser

After helping discover 10 elements, including plutonium, americium, and curium, UC Berkeley chemist Glenn Seaborg wouldn’t have minded stamping his own name on one. But in 1974, a Russian team in the town of Dubna announced it had discovered element 106, several months before a Berkeley team including Seaborg reached the same conclusion. A Cold War battle ensued over who, precisely, had first discovered this new element and what it should be called, with the Americans eventually dubbing it seaborgium. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry stepped in to referee, and it revoked the name seaborgium in the early ’90s. Backed by powerful chemical journals, the Americans insisted on keeping the name, and the moniker was officially reinstated in 1997. The Dubna team got its own consolation prize: element 105, dubnium. To celebrate his victory, Seaborg was photographed beside a large periodic table, pointing toward his element, the only one ever publicly named for a living person.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

Weather Watch
Will the Solar Eclipse Have an Impact on the Weather?

The United States will have a front-row seat to one of the most spectacular solar eclipses to sweep across the country in our lifetimes. Millions of lucky observers from coast to coast will have the chance to watch the Moon scoot in front of the Sun on the afternoon of August 21, 2017, briefly plunging cities like Salem, Oregon, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and Columbia, South Carolina, into night-like darkness during the day. Read our field guide to the solar eclipse for tips on how to make the most of this spectacular event.

While a solar eclipse can be amazing to behold, the phenomenon has little impact on Earth. It may, however, have a small but noticeable effect on weather in the areas that experience a total eclipse.

The entire country will be able to see the Moon cover the Sun in some form, but the best viewing areas will be along a northwest-to-southeast path across the middle of the country. According to NASA, a location needs at least 90 percent coverage to notice any darkening at all, and even 99 percent coverage of the Sun only provides the same level of darkness you'd see at twilight. Areas totally covered by the Moon's relatively narrow shadow will experience conditions akin to dusk, prompting street lights to turn on and even tricking birds and bugs into thinking that the day is drawing to an end. Studies have shown that the total eclipse could also have an effect on temperatures and even winds.

Researchers who studied an eclipse across Europe in 1999 found that the event lowered air temperatures by as much as 5°F across the path of totality. This brief dip in air temperatures also affected local wind speed and direction—not by much, but it was enough for both people and instruments to take notice of the so-called "eclipse wind." The effect on the atmosphere in Europe wasn't a fluke. A weather station in Zambia recorded a temperature drop of nearly 15°F during a solar eclipse in June 2001, and there are reports through history of observers noticing a distinct cooling effect in the midst of a lunar shadow.

The duration of the eclipse and the amount of moisture in the air will determine how much the Moon's shadow will lower temperatures. Moist air has a higher heat capacity than drier air, so when it's muggy outside it takes longer for the air to warm up and cool down. This is why daily temperatures fluctuate less in Miami, Florida, than they do in Phoenix, Arizona. Communities that lie among the drier, cooler Rocky Mountains are more likely to witness a noteworthy dip in temperatures compared to states like Tennessee or South Carolina, which are typically locked in the humid doldrums of summer at the end of August.

If you're lucky enough to witness this spectacular astronomical phenomenon, make sure you bring your eclipse glasses—and a thermometer.

7 Eye-Opening Facts About Venus

For all the efforts to find another inhabitable planet orbiting a distant star, it might surprise you to learn that a very real Earth 2.0 exists in this solar system—just one planet over. Not Mars (which actually isn't much like Earth at all), but rather, our other neighbor: Venus. Mental Floss spoke to geophysicist Bob Grimm, a program director at the Southwest Research Institute and chair of NASA's Venus Exploration Analysis Group. Here are a few things we learned about Earth's twin sister.


Venus has a radius of 3760 miles. Earth's is 3963. Its mass and gravity are 82 percent and 91 percent of Earth's, respectively—pretty similar as planets go. Venus is composed of a mostly basalt crust, silicate mantle, and iron core. Earth is the same. The two planets likely share common origins somewhere around 4.5 billion years ago.

In fact, by all accounts, we should be able to land our flying saucers on Venus, saddle up a dinosaur, and start building tract housing. It's perfect for colonization, but for a few minor differences. Its year is shorter, at 224.7 days. (And its days are much longer, at 243 Earth days per Venus day.) The Sun would rise in the west and set in the east because of the planet's retrograde orbit (which, by the way, is the most circular of any planet in the solar system). And then there's another small problem …


Venus is hotter than Mercury, despite being 30 million miles farther from the Sun. How hot? Hot enough, on average, to melt a block of lead the way a block of ice would melt on Earth. Venus suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. Sunlight penetrates the dense clouds surrounding Venus, heating the landscape. The ground in turn blasts out heat, which rises and tries to escape the atmosphere. But carbon dioxide, which makes up 96 percent of its atmosphere, traps the heat, keeping things nice and toasty, around 900°F. And those clouds aren't the white, fluffy variety. They're made of droplets of sulfuric acid, which makes its lightning storms especially harrowing.


"'Does Earth-size mean Earth-like?' is a basic problem of planetology," says Grimm. "Understanding how Earth and Venus diverged is essential to understanding comparative planetology, and potentially exoplanets—these worlds orbiting distant stars that are being discovered telescopically."

Knowing more about Venus would help scientists better distinguish potentially habitable worlds out there, and better understand how a good world can go bad, from a sustaining-life perspective. "Geology and meteorology are intimately related to the evolution of the Earth and the evolution of life on Earth," Grimm notes. "Even though we may not be looking for life on Venus, it's important to understanding Earth's place in the solar system and in the universe."


You might have run across old illustrations of Venus with conditions similar to the Carboniferous Period on Earth. Astronomers have known for just under a hundred years that Venus's atmosphere is devoid of oxygen, without which you can't have water. But even a modest backyard telescope can see the clouds enveloping our neighbor, and as Carl Sagan explained, from there you're only a couple of erroneous jumps from assuming a brontosaurus. (Thick clouds mean more water than land. More water than land means swamps. Dinosaurs lived in swamps. Dinosaurs live on Venus. QED.) Said Sagan: "Observation: There was absolutely nothing to see on Venus. Conclusion: It must be covered with life."

But seeing is believing, and the Mariner and Venera series of probes disabused us of the romantic notion of a swampy neighbor to the left. Still, we should probably send robots there to check. Just to be sure.


Venus was the first planet we visited, with Mariner 2 achieving the first successful planetary encounter in 1962. Four years later, Venera 3 on Venus became the first spacecraft to touch the surface of another planet. (Communications were lost long before impact, but unless a dinosaur ate it, the spacecraft probably touched the ground.) Our first graceful landing on another planet? Venera 7 on Venus. Our efforts to reach its surface go back much further than that, though. The transit of Venus in 1761 practically invented the notion of an international science community. But we abandoned the surface of Venus in 1984, and NASA hasn't launched an orbiter to Venus since Magellan in 1989. 

Since then, the Venus-science community has been trying to get another mission to the launch pad. Presently, U.S. planetary scientists have submitted proposals to NASA for a sub-$1 billion New Frontiers–class mission. They are also working with their colleagues in Russia to launch a joint mission called Venera-D. "We need better radar views of the surface," says Grimm, "and that has to happen at some point to understand the geology. We need deep probes into the atmosphere to understand it better, and we need a new generation of landers."


"There is evidence in the deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio that Venus once had water, maybe hundreds of meters deep, more like a global sea than an ocean," says Grimm. A theoretical paper published last year posed a climate model for Venus suggesting that water could have existed on its surface as recently as 1 billion years ago. Clouds could form in a certain way, shielding the surface from the Sun and allowing stable water at the surface. Furthermore, near-infrared observations support the argument for a watery Venusian past. ESA's Venus Express orbiter in 2012 found evidence of granite-like rocks on some parts of the planet. Granite requires a multiple melting process in the presence of water. A mission to Venus could confirm this.

Meanwhile, one of the most significant revelations from Magellan is that there are only around 1000 craters on the surface with no differences in density, and it is hard to find craters that are obviously in a state of being wiped out by lava, or being faulted. Venus does not have plate tectonics, one of the central mechanisms that organizes all geology on the Earth. So what happened to the surface of Venus? Where is the evidence of the Late Heavy Bombardment seen on other terrestrial planets and moons? One hypothesis is that all of Venus was resurfaced at once. There may have been a global catastrophe on Venus, perhaps as recently 750 million years ago, that quickly "reset" its surface. Other models suggest a subtler resurfacing at work in which craters might be erased over billions of years.

"So this whole idea of the surface age of Venus is a pivotal question for how planets evolve geologically," says Grimm. "But what was Venus like before that? Was there a single catastrophe, or have there been many? Was there just one catastrophe and Venus was watery before that, or has Venus operated in a steady state going back to the first billion years? There is more consensus that in the first several hundred million years to billion years, there could have been water." Further landings on Venus could help us solve the mystery of when Venus's surface was formed, if there was ever water there, and why, if it existed, it went away.


If Matt Damon were to get stranded on Venus in a sequel to The Martian, he would need to be resourceful indeed to survive the heat and the corrosive air. But what he would find wouldn't be wholly alien. The winds at the surface of Venus are very gentle, around a meter or so per second. The vistas would consist of hills and ridges, with dark lava rocks of various types, mostly basalt. The atmospheric pressure is 90 times greater than Earth at sea level, so walking there would feel a lot like swimming here.

"I don't think [Venus] would look wavy and hot-hazy, because the atmosphere is pretty stable and uniform right at the surface," says Grimm. "It would be harder to walk through the dense atmosphere, but not as hard as walking through water. We know from landings that it's kind of yellow because of the sulfur in the atmosphere. So with the abundance of lavas in many places on Venus, it sort of looks like a yellowish Hawaii."


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