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The Disappearing Spoon

Sam Kean

Antimony pills as laxatives. They didn't dissolve in the gut, and they were valuable, so people dug round in their crap to retrieve them. Some were passed down father to son in wills.

Others devised periodic tables before him, but Mendeleev's was superior. He dashed it off under publishing pressure - he had committed to produce a textbook of the elements, but as deadline loomed, he'd only covered the first nine. Then it occurred to him that the easiest way to present the data was in a table. And, Mendeleev was brave enough to predict that new elements would be found to fill in the gaps in his table, and he predicted their densities and atomic weights, and even provisionally named them.

Mendeleev got famous, divorced his wife, and wanted to get remarried. The church told him he had to wait 7 years, so he bribed a priest and got the nuptials. This was technically bigamy, and so the priest was defrocked for it, but M went unpunished. When a local complained to the Tsar about the double standard, the Tsar replied "It is true that Menedeleev has two wives, but I have only one Mendeleev."

Guy called Clair Patterson devised first radioactivity decay scale. Thanks to the Manhattan Project, he knew the precise rate at which uranium decayed into lead. He also knew that lead had 3 isotopes - 204, 206, 207 - and that uranium only breaks down into 206 and 207. So new amounts are constantly being created. But 204 is fixed, because no element breaks down into lead 204. So the ratio of 206 and 207 to 204 would increase steadily as uranium constantly decayed. All Patterson had to do was work out what the original ratios were. To do that, he got hold of iron meteorites, which contain lead, but not uranium, so the lead ratios are unchanged from the birth of the solar system.

But then he ran into another problem. Since Americans had been using lead paint and leaded gasoline, ambient lead levels in the atmosphere ruined his experiments. He had to resort to extreme measures - such as boiling all his lab equipment in concentrated sulfuric acid - to keep vaporized human lead from contaminating his pristine meteorite samples.

Side effect of this was that his horror at the amount of lead in the air turned him into an activist, and he is the single biggest reason lead paint and gasoline is banned today.

Vanadium is the best spermacide ever found. Unlike other spermicides, which work by dissolving the sperm's outer membrane (and so also attack the vagina walls), vanadium works by snapping off the sperms' tails. Unfortunately vanadium also has some weird side effects, so no-one trusts it enough to use as medicine.

Aluminium is international spelling; aluminum the American one. Charles Hall one of first to find that you could separate pure aluminium out by running an electric current through a solution of dissolved Al compounds. His invention drove the price of it down from $550 a pound to .25 cents a pound. When Hall registered his patent, barium, magnesium, sodium and strontium had just been discovered, so he used the same 'ium' ending on his patent application. There is debate about whether he dropped the 'i' deliberately, or whether it was a typo on some advertising, but Hall loved the new spelling because aligned it with platinum, and so kept the new spelling.

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Rontgen, the discoverer of xrays, was convinced first, that he was hallucinating (when saw own bones) and second, when he kept repeating the experiment, that he must have gone mad. But he was so skeptical of what he saw that he exhaustively eliminated every possible alternative explanation. So when he finally went public with his discovery, and other scientists told him he must have got it wrong, he was able to show them experiments which eliminated their reasons for doubting.

The many white rock coves along England's south-east coast are not natural, but originated as limestone quarries from Roman times.

Ernest Rutherford won the 1908 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, but he also mentored and personally trained eleven future prizewinners, the last in 1978, 4 decades after he'd died. ("It was perhaps the most impressive feat of progeny since Genghis Khan ...")

Rutherford's genius involved the already well-known transmutation of uranium to lead. Uranium (element 92) loses 2 alpha particles and transmutes to thorium (element 90). Thorium then begets radium (88), radon to polonium (84), and polonium to stable lead (82). Rutherford's insight was that the ejected alpha particles would form tiny bubbles of helium within the rock. Helium is non-reactive, so it shouldn't be there unless formed by decay of uranium. The oldest rocks he could find tested out at 500 million years old. And, he realised that these processes generated heat, so negating Kelvin's assessments based on a hot core cooling.

90% of the particles in the universe are hydrogen, and the other 10% are helium. All the rest, including the 6 million billion billion tons of Earth, is a cosmic rounding error. And of that 6 million, billion, billion tons, the rarest element of all, astatine, comprises one ounce.

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