Online copy editor, obsessive punster and sometime blogger for Scientific American. Follow on Twitter
I knew I wasn’t like the other kids. Oh sure, I collected baseball cards and model airplanes, but not with the passion that I saved for my real obsession—collecting each and every element of the periodic table.
This was just part of my chemical romance, which also involved (but was not limited to): watching phenolphthalein solution in test tubes change color, launching sodium carbonate/acetic acid (vinegar)–powered rockets, generating the sulfurous odor of rotten eggs and making a smoke bomb that accidentally detonated in the basement, and eventually graduating to electrolysis and various combustibles that fortunately resulted only in singed eyebrows, but no loss of digits or eyesight.
Outside of explosives, however, lay the Holy Grail—a complete set of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. Decades ago there was no Web, Facebook or eBay, no portal to seek fellow travelers who also might be gratified by my, shall we say, curious diversion or to supply my needs. It was only recently, as a copy editor at Scientific American, that I found out there are others who pursue such a peculiar pastime as element collecting. Until we did the story about them, I had almost forgotten about what I then thought was my unique idiosyncrasy. But then I should have known: you name it, and someone collects it—in many instances, to unsettling degrees of obsessive thoroughness.
Kids, try this at home!
In the mid-1960s, at the end of the golden age of dangerous chemistry sets and prior to the era of micromanaging, risk-averse parenting, there was my 15-year-old self, still hopped up on Watch Mr. Wizard, astronauts in orbit and scientists as authority figures. Over time, and with a lawn-mowing/snow shoveling revenue base, I had set up a laboratory in our basement, procured the requisite test tubes, flasks, retorts and graduated cylinders, along with clamps, hoses, condensers and beakers. I had even tried (unsuccessfully) to get my father to hook up a gas line for a Bunsen burner. But it was amazing how much incendiary mischief one could get into with just an alcohol lamp (and the occasional surreptitious appropriation of my dad’s blowtorch).
Classic chemistry set, circa 1940. Credit: Photo by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license
In every kid’s chemistry set—protective gloves and safety goggles not always included—there were bottles of chemicals for all the nifty experiments that were offered in the instruction manual. Also there was a periodic table. At some point in my molecular manipulations, and with youthful spontaneity and resolve, I decided I must get to the basics and have chunks of atomic stuff at my command. Although individual atoms were not sensual, I would be able to grasp clumps of atoms that were the foundation of all molecular matter. Maybe it was as close as I could ever get to the bottom of things. And having been blissfully ignorant of the infinitesimally more foundational quantum universe, along with dark matter and all the other nagging complications scientists have uncovered since then, I was comfortable calling them “God bricks.”
Needless to say, with my limited financial and logistical resources, and lacking a particle accelerator, I could not acquire the whole periodic table of “God bricks.” If only there had been an eBay or other suppliers, which provide today’s collectors with exotic samples such as thorium (atomic number, 90) and promethium (61). Nevertheless, in those pre-wired times, I was still able to amass a decent set of periodic plunder.
They’re all around me
First, I had to have a place to house my specimens and started with a stroke of luck—my mother had just discarded a spice rack, complete with 12 bottles. Washing out the remnants of garlic, parsley, thyme and other culinary additives, I soon had a display case ready for my trophies.
Should I go by atomic number, I wondered? Why not use the elements I already had—all solid, stable and well-behaved at room temperature? Metals were a great place to start: I sawed a nickel (28) in half to fit it into the small bottle. (I didn’t know it was an alloy with 25 percent copper.) For silver (47), I started sawing a quarter—but that would cost me too much. Instead, I “borrowed” the smallest spoon from my mother’s silverware and sawed off the handle (sorry Mom). For gold (79) I eyed her jewelry box but, luckily, I knew where to draw the line—at least in the beginning. Going instead for our household’s low-hanging fruit, I crumpled some aluminum (13) foil.
Lead (82) was also a breeze: I just borrowed one of my dad’s fishing sinkers and melted it into a small blob with his blowtorch. For other metals—iron (26), tin (50), zinc (30), copper (29)—I tapped my chemistry set. I was also getting good at spotting elements hidden in the items of everyday life. Although I realize now that it was only a chromium (24) alloy, an opportunity arose when my father had a fender bender that left a chunk of the damaged Chevy Bel Air logo just hanging off the grill, which fell off—with a little persuasion. Unlike my mother, he did notice. I relaxed, though, when he muttered, “If I ever catch the [expletive deleted] kids who did this. This used to be a good neighborhood.”
On to nonmetallic quarry: from the medicine cabinet, iodine (53), and from the laundry, bleach chlorine (17). Although both were of dubious purity, I declared my 12-element display case complete. I was already out of display room, so I started collecting random bottles and other containers. Next in was the pizazz-challenged, but oh so fundamental element, carbon (6). To get it, out came my trusty saw again, which I used to decapitate a D battery. Inside was its anode, a carbon rod. All good. Given that at the time only 104 elements had been discovered, I only had 92, give or take, to go.
As I read about and oogled my first dozen elements, I thought they were neat, but sort of blah. I wanted them to do tricks. And here I was thrilled to find my first flammable metal—the alkaline earth metal, magnesium (12). I sacrificed half my sample to my father’s blowtorch and gasped at its brilliant white flame through his welding goggles. But, like any addict, this just whet my appetite. I needed more elements of danger, so to speak.
Imagine my elation when I hauled home from a dumpster in front of a store that had gone out of business a neon (10) sign, which I hoped to wire up, and a vacuum tube with a tungsten filament (74), from an old radio. But my real find was a fluorescent bulb that would yield mercury (80), a truly exotic element. But how to get the mercury—wasn’t it vaporous? It became even more problematic when my father caught me with a hammer and the rinky-dink rig of tubes and flasks I had contrived to capture the gas from the shattered tube. Needless to say, everything was confiscated. It was probably for the best. After all, mercury vapor is best left outside the lungs.
As for other gases, hydrogen (1) and oxygen (8) seemed likely targets. Along with nitrogen (7), they’re all around us, but not in pure form. Ah, the miracle of chemistry—and lead–acid car batteries. I procured dangerous sulfuric acid (H2SO4) using an eyedropper and a visit under the hood of the family car. Having seized a goodly amount by sampling each cell, I held my breath—both when I transferred the corrosive, and when my father later went to start the car. It was sluggish, but the engine turned over. I had to be wary: at this point, strange goings-on and disappearances around the house were no longer attributed to chance or poltergeists. Among my siblings, I was suspect number one.
When sulfuric acid reacts with metal, it creates a sulfate and releases its hydrogen atoms, which I could trap in my flask. Oh the fun I had showing the most abundant element in the universe to friends. I detonated it with a glowing ember and inhaled it to raise my voice pitch to Alvin-the-chipmunk level (luckily in separate demonstrations).
Blobs of liquid mercury, also known as quicksilver. Credit: IStockphoto
Molten metal in my hand
Now I was getting deep into my fixation. But how low would I sink? One of my biggest coups was “getting hold” of some very toxic mercuric oxide from the school lab. My plan was to use it to generate oxygen by heating it. Oxygen was fun, too. It would cause a burning ember to burst into flame. But even better, when I heated the HgO to release the oxygen, little globules of mercury condensed on the sides of the test tube. I finally had my quicksilver fix—molten metal that I could touch!
I kept “borrowing” more mercuric oxide, and cooking up a supply of the tiny globules until I had a quarter-size blob. I’d show my friends my specimen, rolling it around in the palm of my hand. A friend brought a gold ring over so we could watch it amalgamate (combine) with the gold—he went home with one of silvery color (I don’t remember whose ring it was, but I do know he wasn’t allowed to visit our house again). We were probably breathing the vapor it emitted, too. How could we be so dumb? Oh yeah, we were teenagers. At last check, I still haven’t gone mad as a hatter, but, please don’t try this at home—or anywhere. Do stuff like this, instead.
A glow-in-the-dark radium-dial alarm clock. Credit: IStockphoto
An isotope to call my own
As if exposing myself to a toxic metal wasn’t enough, I lusted for something radioactive, elements that glowed, and ones that detonated under conditions where most materials were quiescent. Phosphorus (15) or sodium (11), which explosively oxidized in water or air would be the Holy Grail, but seemed to be “unobtainium,” as the only samples I could locate were under lock and key, along with all the acids and bases I would have loved to get my as-yet intact hands on, in the school.
Ironically, a radioactive isotope, radium 226 (atomic number, 88) was available in the house. It was just a matter of getting hold of my father’s trusty World War II–era radium-dial alarm clock, opening the face, and removing a couple of the marker dots. I figured out that he might not notice blank spots over the numbers 3 and 5, because in the P.M. he’d be at work, and in the dark A.M. hours when it would be glowing, he would be asleep. So off came the markers. Yes! I had for my very own, a pair of luminescent, alpha particle–spitting pets. I had gone nuclear!
Of course, the inevitable occurred. A friend teased me, saying that the chlorine in my collection was really sodium hypochlorite. That wouldn’t do. I learned that if I mixed it with acetic acid, however, I could get the real thing in all its green, gaseous glory. I mixed the bleach and acid in a flask and had a rubber stopper ready to seal it. But as the reaction started, I dropped the stopper. Rising after picking it up, a burning sensation met my eyes; the noxious gas bubbled like a sickly, virescent blossom from the flask. As I struggled to stop it, the flask fell to the floor and the evil cloud grew. Luckily, I knew it was potentially deadly, so I evacuated—fast. But once upstairs, I knew I had to do something. Quickly arming myself with a snorkel mask, I ran back into the basement but there was nothing I could do to slay the chemically licentious halogen dragon I had conjured. Holding my breath, I yanked open a window and fled again.
I had lots of explaining to do when my father came home from work and was told by my mother that I had frantically insisted she not go into the basement to do the laundry, because if she did, she would surely die. That was the end of my element collecting. I was forbidden to use my chemistry set until further notice.
Eventually, after a two-year break from unsupervised exposure to toxic elements, radiation, and evil humors and vapors, I was allowed to use my lab again. But I never resumed my hobby. Older, wiser and probably cell-damaged, I moved on to “normal” and at least marginally safer teenage callings: Souping up fast cars, internally experimenting with new and alluring chemicals in even less legal ways, going to stadium rock concerts, and pursuing girls. My quest to hoard the building blocks of existence was at an end.