justin gabbard
justin gabbard

5 of Chemistry's Most Talented Elements

justin gabbard
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.

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.


Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.


After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.


Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.


The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.


Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.


The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."


Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.


Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.


Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.


Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

Big Questions
Where Did the Myth That Radiation Glows Green Come From?

by C Stuart Hardwick

Probably from radium, which was widely used in self-luminous paint starting in 1908. When mixed with phosphorescent copper-doped zinc sulfide, radium emits a characteristic green glow:


The use of radioluminescent paint was mostly phased out by the mid-1960s. Today, in applications where it is warranted (like spacecraft instrument dials and certain types of sensors, for example), the radiation source is tritium (radioactive hydrogen) or an isotope of promethium, either of which has a vastly shorter half life than radium.

In most consumer products, though, radioluminescence has been replaced by photoluminescence, phosphors that emit light of one frequency after absorbing photons of a difference frequency. Glow-in-the-dark items that recharge to full brightness after brief exposure to sunlight or a fluorescent light only to dim again over a couple of hours are photoluminescent, and contain no radiation.

An aside on aging radium: By now, most radium paint manufactured early in the 20th century has lost most of its glow, but it’s still radioactive. The isotope of radium used has a half life of 1200 years, but the chemical phosphor that makes it glow has broken down from the constant radiation—so if you have luminescent antiques that barely glow, you might want to have them tested with a Geiger counter and take appropriate precautions. The radiation emitted is completely harmless as long as you don’t ingest or inhale the radium—in which case it becomes a serious cancer risk. So as the tell-tale glow continues to fade, how will you prevent your ancient watch dial or whatever from deteriorating and contaminating your great, great grandchildren’s home, or ending up in a landfill and in the local water supply?

Even without the phosphor, pure radium emits enough alpha particles to excite nitrogen in the air, causing it to glow. The color isn’t green, through, but a pale blue similar to that of an electric arc.


This glow (though not the color) entered the public consciousness through this early illustration of its appearance in Marie Curie’s lab, and became confused with the green glow of radium paints.

The myth is likely kept alive by the phenomenon of Cherenkov glow, which arises when a charged particle (such as an electron or proton) from submerged sources exceeds the local speed of light through the surrounding water.

So in reality, some radionuclides do glow (notably radium and actinium), but not as brightly or in the color people think. Plutonium doesn’t, no matter what Homer Simpson thinks, unless it’s Pu-238—which has such a short half life, it heats itself red hot.


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