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I wonder, though, if there's a more scientific way to evaluate the metal. First, a polishing wheel gives the bronze a mirror-like finish. We'll have to zoom in a hundred million times to see an atom.
To find out, I'm taking a piece of it to David Muller, at Cornell University. Then the sample is inserted into a powerful electron microscope. To understand the scale, imagine if I were floating in space, 2,000 miles above the earth, looking down at the United States. Now what we're actually starting to see is the microstructure of the grains in that bronze. They are meant to absorb and reflect sound, because the microscope itself is so sensitive that if you were to talk, just the pressure wave from your voice is going to, is going to give enough mechanical vibration to shake this thing around.
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.
It's a story that begins with the Big Bang and eventually leads to us. Join me as I explore the basic building blocks of the universe… …to the least—manmade elements that last only fractions of a second; strange metals with repellant powers;… So, after all that pulverizing and crushing and weighing and firing, what we're left with is this? Eighteen hundred dollars times…720,000 bucks a truck! The surface mine produces less, about half an ounce per ton. This goes back to the 1800s, the late 1800s, where farmers were looking, actually, for money to plant their next year's crops. We use it for infrastructure; we use it for electronic goods. When times are bad, copper prices tumble, and when times are good, they soar. It's these free-flowing electrons that make metals conductive.
Gold has been sought since ancient times, yet all the gold ever mined would fit into a single cube about 60 feet on a side. It was a sacred material to ancient people, and it's never lost its luster. Only a few natural elements have greater density than gold: rhenium, platinum, iridium and osmium.
Like all elements, gold is an atom that gets its identity from tiny particles: positively charged protons in the nucleus, balanced by negatively charged electrons all around, plus neutrons, which have no charge at all. It's virtually indestructible, yet also soft and malleable.
Tin is good for a bell, but only in the right proportion.
Here, at the Cortez Mine, in Nevada, high-tech prospectors are moving mountains, closing in from above and below. Which raises a question: if the gold is invisible to the naked eye, how do they even know if they're digging in the right place? Eight bars, million, sitting on this unassuming little table. Of all the elements that touch our lives, nothing drives humankind to acts of love or destruction like gold. Copper alone is impressive stuff, but when ancient metallurgists combined it with another element, they invented a much tougher material that went on to conquer the world. Tin; symbol Sn; atomic number 50—50 protons and 50 electrons.
If you're like me, you care about the elements and how they go together,… The problem is it's exceedingly rare stuff in the earth's crust, and it's getting harder to find all the time. Mike tells me that each bar represents about a million pounds of rock that had to be moved and processed.
Every day she receives hundreds of samples of earth taken from the mine. …then pulverized to the consistency of baby powder. But two rows above gold is another metal of antiquity that looms large in our lives: copper; symbol Cu; atomic number 29—29 protons, 29 electrons. Bronze helped to spur global trade, and, once forged into tools and weapons, it played a defining role in the empires of antiquity. I'm here because they're about to cast several bells.
This rock face is about a quarter mile below the surface, and, according to John Taule, it's loaded with gold, somewhere. That's where Gayle Fitzwater and the assay team come in. I think I've seen one of these machines at Starbucks. It is, perhaps, the most emotional of the elements. Tin added in small amounts to copper makes bronze, the first manmade metal alloy. This is The Verdin Company, a 170-year-old family-run business in Cincinnati, Ohio.