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justin gabbard

5 of Chemistry's Most Talented Elements

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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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Live Smarter
Here's What You Need to Know Before Getting Inked or Pierced, According to Doctors
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Getting inked or pierced is a rite of passage for many teens and young adults. But before getting that belly ring or butterfly on your back, experts want you to be aware of the risks, which are reviewed in a new clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). According to NPR, it's the first set of recommendations the professional association has ever released on the practices.

Forthcoming in the October 2017 issue of Pediatrics and available online, the report provides a general assessment of the types and methods used to perform body modifications, along with potential health and social consequences. Here are a few main takeaways:

—It's unclear how often tattoos cause health complications, but they're generally believed to be rare, with the greatest risk being infection. One recent study found that nanoparticles in ink can travel to and linger in lymph nodes for an extended period. That said, you should check with your doctor to make sure all of your immunizations are up to date before getting either a tattoo or piercing, and that you're not taking any immunity-compromising medicines.

—Before shelling out your hard-earned cash on a tattoo, make sure it's something you'll likely still appreciate in five to 10 years, as it costs anywhere from $49 to $300 per square inch to remove a tattoo with lasers. (This might provide all the more incentive to opt for a small design instead of a full sleeve.)

—About half of people 18 to 29 years of age have some kind of piercing or tattoo, according to Dr. Cora Breuner, who is chair of the AAP committee on adolescence. Many individuals don't regret getting one, with some reporting that tattoos make them feel sexier. But while millennials appear to be cool with metal and ink, hiring managers might not be too pleased: In a 2014 survey of 2700 people, 76 percent said they thought a tattoo or piercing had hindered their chances of getting hired, and nearly 40 percent thought tattooed employees reflected poorly on their employers.

—Not all tattoo parlors are created equal, as each state has different regulations. Keep a close eye on whether your artist uses fresh disposable gloves, fresh needles, and unused ink poured into a new container. This helps prevent infection.

—The advice is similar for getting pierced: Make sure the piercer puts on new, disposable gloves and uses new equipment from a sterile container. Tongue piercings can cause tooth chippings, so be careful of that—and remove any piercings before you play contacts sports.

The full report is available online.

[h/t NPR]

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The Body
7 Essential Facts About the Pelvis
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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

The pelvis, which crooner Elvis was famous for thrusting around in ways that raised eyebrows, is not actually a single body part but a term that refers to a collection of bones, muscles and organs below the waist. We spoke to Katherine Gillogley, department chair of obstetrics and gynecology with Mercy Medical Group in Sacramento, California, for these seven facts about the pelvis.


"The pelvis refers to the lower abdominal area in both men and women," Gillogley says. "An important function of the pelvis region is to protect organs used for digestion and reproduction, though all its functions are crucial," she says. It protects the bladder, both large and small intestines, and male and female reproductive organs. Another key role is to support the hip joints.


Four bones come together to form a bowl-like shape, or basin: the two hip bones, the sacrum (the triangle-shaped bone at the low back) and the coccyx (also known as the tailbone).


At the bottom of the pelvis lies your pelvic floor. You don't have to worry about sweeping it, but you might want to do Kegel exercises to keep it strong. The pelvic floor is like a "mini-trampoline made of firm muscle," according the Continence Foundation of Australia. Just like a trampoline, the pelvic floor is flexible and can move up and down. It also creates a surface (floor) for the pelvic organs to lie upon: the bladder, uterus, and bowels. It has holes, too, for vagina, urethra, and anus to pass through.


Anyone who has ever broken a pelvic bone or pulled a pelvic muscle will know just how key a role the pelvis plays in such functions as walking and standing. "The pelvis also acts as a solid foundation for the attachment of the spinal column and legs," says Gillogley.


Gillogley says that the female pelvis "tends to be larger and wider" than the male, most likely to accommodate a baby during pregnancy and to make childbirth possible. However, women's pelvises narrow as they age, suggesting that they start out wider to accommodate childbearing and then shift when that is no longer necessary. A shifting pelvis shape is thought to be a key part of our evolutionary history, as it changed as when we began walking upright.    


During pregnancy the body secretes a hormone known as relaxin to help the body accommodate the growing baby and soften the cervix. However, what happens is, "the joints between the pelvic bones actually loosen and slightly separate during pregnancy and childbirth," Gillogley says. Sometimes, however, relaxin can make the joints too loose, causing a painful syndrome known as symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD), causing the pelvic joint to become unstable, causing pain and weakness in the pelvis, perineum and even upper thighs during walking and other activities. Many women with the condition have to wear a pelvic belt. It usually resolves after pregnancy is over, though physical therapy may be necessary.


According to the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, about 8 to 9 percent of blunt trauma includes pelvic injury, Gillogley says. "These accidents include falls, motor vehicle crashes, bicycle accidents, and pedestrians being struck by moving vehicles. With these serious injuries, pelvic bones can fracture or dislocate and sometimes bladder injury even occurs." So take care with your pelvis—in worse-case scenarios, breaks of the pelvic bones can require pins, rods, and surgery to fix.


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