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Far from prying eyes, the ground erupts; heavy equipment moving millions of tons of earth in search of something: a secret, deep underground. I'm starting with one of humanity's first elemental loves: gold; symbol Au. Join me on my Hunt for the Elements, right now, on NOVA. They tell me that so much money flows out of this place, it's like a gold mine. It's a journey that dives deep into the metals of civilization, marvels at the mysteries of the extremely reactive, reveals hidden powers and harnesses secrets of life, from hydrogen to uranium and beyond.This is what can happen if the amount of tin isn't right.No one is certain why the Liberty Bell cracked, but a chemical analysis indicated there was too much tin and perhaps other impurities in the bronze.The number of protons is called the atomic number and it's the fundamental organizing principle of every table of the elements, including this one. They're filled with stats and figures that don't make any sense to the ordinary person. What matters about elements is that they are real physical substances with properties and things you can do with them. I have to say many of these elements look the way you would think—gold looks like gold, silver looks like silver—but not all of them.Theo makes the point by putting me in touch with the real deal. To make the entire table less abstract, he invites me to lay out the rest of his collection of pure elements. This is a visual representation of every single element that makes up this entire planet and everything on it. As we can clearly see, more than 70 percent of the elements on the table are metals, shiny, malleable materials that conduct electricity. Everything from here on over, including the bottom part, is all metals. And down the middle are these, kind of, halfway in between things, which include, for example, semiconductors, like silicon. The one I was looking at, in particular, was calcium. This is when Theo's collection starts to get really interesting, when he pairs the pure elements with their more familiar forms.To unlock their secrets, David Pogue, technology columnist and lively host of NOVA's popular "Making Stuff" series, spins viewers through the world of weird, extreme chemistry: the strongest acids, the deadliest poisons, the universe's most abundant elements, and the rarest of the rare—substances cooked up in atom smashers that flicker into existence for only fractions of a second. Yet everything we know, the stars, the planets and life, itself, comes from about 90 basic building blocks,… …all right here, on this remarkable chart: the periodic table of the elements. And we're made, almost entirely, of just a handful of ingredients, including one that burns with secret fire inside us all. The sample, mixed with a lead oxide powder, goes into a furnace heated to 2,000 degrees. Using extreme heat, gold atoms are gradually coaxed away from the powdered rock. Turns out that an ounce per ton is pretty much optimal for the underground mine. The New York Mercantile Exchange is a vital hub in the global metals market, which is pretty good news for me. (Commodities Trader): Oh, this is an old, old business. It's so important that the rise and fall of copper prices provide a snapshot of the health of the entire world economy. Each atom gives up some of its electrons to create a kind of sea of these randomly moving charged particles.
I can't believe I can now put on my resume that I've seen atoms. This amazing ability to see atoms has opened up new worlds for scientists.
About three quarters of the elements are metals, and gold is one of the most standoffish. In copper, they can slide past each other easily, which makes it relatively soft and easy to dent, not right for a bell. Ralph places the form into a circular steel sleeve, then fills the space around it with a mixture of sand and epoxy, to withstand the searing heat of the hot metal. Adding tin to copper during melting changes the properties of the metal.
How an atom reacts chemically depends on how willing it is to share electrons with others, and gold is not very social. So do other so-called "noble" metals: silver, platinum, palladium, osmium and iridium, all located in the same quiet neighborhood of the periodic table. The golden mud goes into a 2,000-degree induction furnace, along with a white powder called flux, chemicals that prevent the molten gold from reacting with or sticking to anything. When this company started, they used a mixture of horsehair, manure and just about anything else that would hold a shape without burning, but the goal was the same: to create a hollow shape that follows the inner and outer perimeter of the bell. The larger tin atoms restrict the movement of the copper atoms, making the material harder.
It's here we find elements at their most elemental, because every nucleus contains protons, and it's the number of protons that determines what kind of element the atom is. Every high school student has seen the elements chart, but author Theo Gray's version is unique: handmade, with each element's identity card meticulously carved into the wood.
One proton is hydrogen; two protons, helium; three protons, lithium; four protons, beryllium; all the way up to element 118, with 118 protons. But, I have to say, I've never completely gotten it right. And if you think about it, the name of each element is the least important piece of information you could possibly have.