5 of Chemistry's Most Talented Elements

justin gabbard
justin gabbard / 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.