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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.

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

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The American Museum of Natural History
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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech
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More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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