Science: Larger than Economics, Smaller than Life

A month ago, almost 40 years later, I decided to resume something I started in high school and memorized the entire periodic table, an entirely useless feat. It started in the 1970s as an extension of a chemistry course requirement. We had to know the names, symbols and atomic numbers of the first twenty elements. cell-asian-elephantSo I decided to carry it a little further. It would get attention from peers because I would use it at Sweet Sixteen parties as an alternative to walking a straight line to prove that I was not drunk. 

Years later after some elements had disappeared from memory, reciting just the first 70 still impressed my high school kids. Yet now it’s not to impress them a little more that I learned the rest. It’s because for me there’s a good feeling that comes out of it. Why? Some of the mnemonics I use are quirky and somewhat creative.  A few are based on things I’ve learned gradually about the elements and their relationships. Our brains have an affinity for things that are related to previously stored facts and concepts. It’s why some of us recall names and statistics of professional athletes of the present, adding to the bank of even more useless information of the past.

But why was I drawn to chemistry in the first place? It does not depend on a special talent but on a personality quirk that makes it likely for some individuals to devote themselves to it. All of this brings me to a myth about science. As educators, we often believe that if science was more valued in society, we’d have more scientifically literate individuals. But it is already highly esteemed. Most high-achieving adolescents are persuaded into taking enriched courses of chemistry and physics. Large sums of money are spent by universities, industry and government on research, equipment and personnel. Even in my internet-less world of the 1970s, there were chemistry sets in department stores, science shows on TV and plenty of basic science books in the city and school library. And yet back then, pure science departments like chemistry and physics were relatively tiny in all universities across the planet. Biology ones were larger but only because they were filled with students who hoped to get into medicine after undergraduate studies. Now with the addition of even more science on TV, more publications of books and thousands of science youtube videos, web sites and blogs, nothing has changed. More importantly, there’s no evidence that scientific literacy in general has increased.

Why is science highly valued in the first place? The main reason it should be valued is because its experimental method of confirming or rejecting guesses is the best way of understanding how the natural world and technology operate. It’s slowly giving us more insight into the mechanisms of emotions, dreams, behavior and so forth. But it does not diminish the value of literature, music, the arts, philosophy and history, which will for a long time continue to explore what it feels like to go through the journey of life. There are people who think that religion and science are reconcilable, but I find that intellectually and spiritually, it is all those other things that I mentioned that complement science, not organized religion.

Science started as natural philosophy. Unfortunately too often in both industry and academia, science is now valued mostly because it’s tied in to ego and profit. To many, it is just another way of selling questionable goods and philosophies to a public with too little time or ability or motivation to probe into things more deeply. Moreover, science is embedded within a world whose relation between technology and humanity is deeply symbiotic but often not mutualistic. But in any world we can imagine or realize, science is as ineffective as religion if it promises a nirvana. 






Poisonous Neighborhoods of the Periodic Table

Painting by author, but castle-outline is from the cover of a forgotten book.

In describing the periodic table’s regions of related elements in Periodic Kingdoms,  P.W. Atkins drops the dry tone of textbooks and reaches for a little imagery.

The kingdom is not an amorphous jumble of regions, but a closely organized state in which the character of one region is close to that of its neighbour. There are few sharp boundaries. Rather the landscape is largely characterized by transitions: savannah blends into gentle valleys which deepen into almost fathomless gorges.

But as imaginative as he gets, the regions are the same ones we normally encounter. It would have been preferable if he had discussed the realm of gold, mercury, thallium and lead whose unique color, liquid state, poisonous nature and role in car batteries, respectively, can only be explained with relativistic effects. (In lead, the effect is explained here.)

Today I noticed some regions that are rarely, if ever, mentioned elsewhere—the periodic table’s poisonous neighborhoods. In the graphic below, I included either poisonous compounds or the ions responsible for the toxic nature of the substance. If the element does not appear by itself, as in the case of elemental sulfur, then it is not poisonous. Thallium is another example. The neutral version of the element is not found naturally. If synthesized artificially, the neutral form quickly reacts to form its poisonous version. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but I tried to stick to the nastiest examples.

graphic created by author

Ingestion of aqueous HCl or hydrochloric acid is rare. But there is a detailed documented case of a 61 year old woman who in  a suicide attempt drank 200 ml of a 30-33% solution. By the time she had reached the hospital, the acid had killed tissue from the mouth to the base of her stomach, and ten hours later, she died of multi-organ failure. The gaseous form of HCl is also highly poisonous. A half hour exposure  to only 500 mg per liter of air (ppm) is fatal.

Much smaller concentrations of the related hydrogen fluoride gas can irritate the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract. A concentration of as little as 50 ppm will be fatal as it will cause the heart to beat erratically and fluid to accumulate in the lungs.

The protection we have against hydrogen sulfide poisoning is that our noses are extremely sensitive to its rotten egg stench. Most people can detect only 0.00047 ppm, a level that is 850 000 smaller than the approximately 400 ppm lethal level. H2S kills like cyanide by taking oxygen’s place and binding to iron cytochromes of the mitochondria.

Phosphine, PH3, smells like a blend of garlic on top of decaying fish. In 2010 in Utah, a freak accident  involving phosphine killed two children. Aluminum phosphide (AlP) was applied too close to the house by a pest control company. The phosphine gas formed by the reaction between the compound and water and what was intended for rodents seeped through a crack in the foundation and found its way into the home. It also killed two French-Canadian tourists in Thailand in 2010, and they were not the only victims. Phosphine poisonings are not uncommon in Southeast Asia.


One of the most bizarre cases of arsenic poisoning may have occurred in 2007 in Peru where the Carancas meteorite possibly produced arsenic-containing gases such as arsine, AsH3. It could have been formed when the meteorite’s hot surface met an underground water supply tainted with arsenic ions. More than 600 villagers presumably became ill. But the reports may have been exaggerated, and the gases emanating from the groundwater may have been sulfurous in nature and not arsine.

In 2010, in Zamfara, Nigeria, as many as 400 children died from lead poisoning. The villagers had ignored the dying of ducks a year earlier. For Pb (lead), ducks are sentinels like canaries in a coal mine. In this case, a nearby gold mine was the source of the lead contamination. Lead poisons by interfering with gene-regulating proteins, molecules that turn on and shut off the expression of DNA. The metal achieves this by displacing other metals from the protein complexes.


Prussian blue is the antidote to thallium poisoning, which was carried out routinely by Saddam Hussein. In a cruel case after Hussein’s death, still in Iraq, someone  with an axe to grind placed the tasteless, odorless poison in a large cake. Two children were killed. Thirty others were saved but suffered hair loss and dermatitis, two classic symptoms of the poisoning.

Mercury is another problem associated with gold extraction and Hg-contamination has become an issue in places like Segovia, Columbia. All forms of the metal wreck cellular function by changing the 3D (tertiary and quaternary) structure of proteins and by binding with sulfhydryl and selenohydryl groups.

Finally, cadmium poisoning or the itai-itai disease(translates to “it hurts- it hurts”) softens the bones and causes kidney failure. Cadmium is known to increase oxidative stress by being a catalyst in the formation of reactive oxygen species. In 2010, 12 million Shrek glasses sold by McDonald’s were recalled due to contamination by cadmium. There was not enough of the metal to cause poisoning, but the glasses were recalled because long term exposure to small amounts of cadmium can lead to cancer.

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