only periodically interesting

per_tales_coverSome things I learned about the elements, from Periodic Tales

• Prior to the late 18th century, “bleaching” clothing or textiles was an arduous process: washing something and letting it dry in the sun, dozens of times. It took months, yet the practice was common enough that there were “bleaching fields” where acres of textiles were laid out in the sun at the same time.

• Oxygen had a reputation as a tonic and cure-all peddled by quacks in the early 20th century, and one of the people who lent it some credibility was JBS Haldane. Haldane was a jack-of-all-trades scientist known for his quick wit, Marxism, and willingness to experiment on himself. He was one of the first to recognize and test the benefits of oxygen inhalation on those suffering chronic effects of poison gas inhalation, which he tested by sealing himself or colleagues in a chamber and exposing them to gaseous unpleasantries—a tactic clearly of a time before institutional oversight.

Haldane also developed the decompression routine for divers and may have been the first to suggest the use of canaries in coal mines. During decompression tests, he and several colleagues ruptured their eardrums. Haldane is said to have remarked that even though the hole in his eardrum did not heal, he considered his newfound ability to blow tobacco smoke out of his ear quite the “social accomplishment.” He also accurately summed up the perverse progress and acceptance of novel scientific ideas and theories:

“The four stages of acceptance: 1. This is worthless nonsense. 2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view. 3. This is true, but quite unimportant. 4. I always said so.”

• The California gold rush owed much to James K. Polk, who mentioned in a December 1848 address to Congress that gold had been found in Sutters Fort. The non-native population of California proceeded to quadruple in a year. One of the emigré prospectors was a pre-Twain Samuel Clemens, who rolled westward to the Nevada Territory in 1861, where his brother was governor (definitely didn’t know that). Things didn’t exactly “pan out” (haha) on the prospecting front, so he went on to shit-talk, as trenchantly as possible, mining and every single other person, thing, or event which ever pissed him off ever, except cats:

Twain, a cat lover

• After radium was discovered, there was a mad dash to add it to EVERYTHING because it was radioactive, luminescent, and presumably magic. It was put in condoms, contraceptive jelly (probably both effective, probably not for the reasons they thought), and all manner of “health supplements” (probably not effective). My favorite of these is the Radiendocrinator, a radium-laced pad meant to be placed over the endocrine glands to…do something: “Wear the adaptor like any athletic strap. This puts the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed.” Radium dispensers were placed next to tubs, in order to make bubble baths of radon, and similar aerators were used to make fizzy water and sodas.

Probably the most ubiquitous use of radium was in luminescent watch faces. Because the handling of radium was completely unregulated, the “Radium Girls” who painted those watch faces subsequently developed all manner of illness related to radiation exposure, and subsequently sued their employers. Naturally, scientists and upper-level so-and-sos in the company had taken suitable precautions for protecting themselves, but let their “lessers” work freely in radioactive conditions. Because that’s not scurrilous enough, those executives then argued that the “Radium Girls” were actually suffering from syphilis, not radiation sickness, because obviously they were a bunch of jezebels. The case did eventually lead to safety precautions for watch-face-painters and kickstarted US occupational safety laws, although radium-based paint was not phased out until the 1960s, and jesus how did everyone not die from cancer?

• I always assumed (or would have, had I thought about it) that lead shot was made with some kind of die casting. But like fiber optic cable, it was historically made using the awesome force of gravity. Lead is poured slowly from height—up to twenty stories—to form droplets that land in a trough of water. Unfortunately, even at that height one cannot guarantee round shot, so the pellets are then sent down a ramp with a slight incline at the end; only those round enough to roll freely will make it up and over the incline. The oblate dullards that don’t are pooled together and remelted.

• The use of cobalt and other colored glass bottles primarily arose because excise taxes were higher on clear glass, which was used in more luxurious items, like chandeliers and…windows.

• The US ambassador to Italy in the 1950s, Clare Booth Luce, was poisoned by arsenic and forced to retire due to sickness (she later recovered). Turns out she was accidentally poisoned by paint flakes falling from the ornate decorations of the ambassadorial residence.

• Dmitri Mendeleev was a total badass, predicting no fewer than 8 unknown and theretofore (is that a word?) undiscovered elements, their placement in the periodic table that he developed, and most of their chemical properties. He was later responsible for devising the Russian state standards for vodka, and suggesting that burning petroleum for fuel would be “akin to firing up a kitchen stove with bank notes.”


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