Chemistry

chemical-weapon-munitions-dumped-at-sea

Chemical Weapons Munitions Dumped at Sea

Smallest hard disk to date writes information atom by atom   …   Every day, modern society creates more than a billion gigabytes of new data. To store all this data, it is increasingly important that each single bit occupies as little space as possible. A team of scientists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University managed to bring this reduction to the ultimate limit: they built a memory of 1 kilobyte (8,000 bits), where each bit is represented by the position of one single chlorine atom. “In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created by humans to be written on a single post stamp”, says lead-scientist Sander Otte. 

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Uranium

by Tom Zoellner.  Published by Viking, 2009.  ISBN 978-0-670-02064-5

Count Schlick disappeared after marching off to fight the Turks in 1528, and his mines [in Chzekoslovakia] were eventually annexed by the Hapsburg house of Vienna, which ensured a wider reach for the valley’s silver (and handsome seigniorage for the royal sponsors). The big, heavy coins became a staple in market tills and court treasuries in France, Spain , and England . It was a publicity coup for the valley. Merchants began calling the coins Joachimthalers, later shortened to “thalers,” which became bastardized to “dollars” in English-speaking regions.

In this way, the U.S. dollar took its linguistic roots from the mine shafts of St. Joachimsthal, which, in addition to a river of silver, yielded a curious material that stuck to the miners’ picks. Dark and greasy, it typically showed up in kidney shaped blobs, with the neghboring rocks stained brilliant shades of green, orange, or yellow.

The miners nicknamed the stuff “pechblende” (the German word blende means “mineral,” while pech can mean both “tar” and “misfortune”); it was literally the “bad-luck-rock” and tossed aside. Seeing this pechblende – the English word was pitchblende – was never welcome: It usually meant a particular vein of silver had been cleaned away, leaving nothing but mineral garbage, and the miners would have to endure the backbreaking chore of sinking another shaft.

When the silver ran out, the town nearly died. An epidemic of bubonic plague arrived in 1613 and an invading Swedish army sacked the town, reducing it to a valley of burned stumps. The watchtower stood half ruined. Crop failures had forced many to eat boiled hay and insects. Some of those who remained were also stricken by a mysterious disease called bergkrankheit , or “mountain disease,” which had started approximately fifteen years after the first shafts were dug. Nobody knew what caused it, though arsenic was suspected. Hundreds of people came down with a persistent hacking cough and spit up blood. Death arrived after a few pained months. The disease did not seem to be linked to the plague or to other common maladies of the lungs, but local physicians were at a loss as to how to treat or explain it. “Their lungs rot away,” reported Georgius Agricola, who theorized it was due to “pestilential air” in the shafts. But nobody thought to connect it to the velvety black rock.

More than a century later, a sample found its way to a thirty-seven-year-old Berlin pharmacist named Martin Klaproth, who had first studied to be a priest but taught himself chemistry while working as a clerk. He had already gained a small measure of local fame for exposing a scam against Empress Catherine II, who had paid for a remedy called nerve drops. Klaproth proved the drops were nothing more than a mixture of iron chloride and ether, and won the court’s gratitude.

In the spring of 1789, he examined the waste product from St. Joachimsthal and realized that, whatever the stuff was, it was associated with lead. When he heated it in solution, it produced a type of yellow crystal the pharmacist had never seen before. Klaproth added wax and a little oil to isolate a heavy grayish residue that he called “a new element which I see as a strange kind of half-metal.” Very strange, in fact: It created vibrant yellows and greens when added to glass.

Klaproth refused to name this new coloring agent after himself, as would have been the custom. He instead gave the honor to a new planet in the sky, Uranus, which had recently been discovered by an amateur astronomer in Britain . The new metal was called “uranium” until a more suitable moniker was found. But none ever was.

The pharmacist had, indirectly, given the metal the name of the Hellenic sky god Uranus. According to the Greek creation story, Uranus visited the earth every night to make love with the ground and bring forth the children who would one day grow into the mutated Cyclops and the Titans. Uranus hated his own children and ordered them chained in a prison deep inside his wife, the earth. One of the most violent of his children rose up from his prison, castrated his father, Uranus, and tossed the severed penis and testicles into the sea. These organs grew into the avenging spirits Erinyes, or the Furies, who occaisionally returned to earth for the persecution and damnation of men who upset the natural order. (Pages 16 – 18)

*****

[Notes: The earth, Gaia, was also the mother of Uranus. Cronus, the rebel son of Uranus, is known to us today as Father Time. Father Time is generally illustrated as carrying the scythe which he used to castrate Uranus, and to reap the generations of humanity.]

 

 

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