Metals have been with humans a long time and have played an important role in driving society. With the discovery of each new metal or alloy, new developments were made and new technologies appeared. Metals helped with the invention of new hunting and food preparation tools, transportation, and construction. They are even used in surgical technology today. For all our nerds out there, here are some other interesting things about metals.
There are natural alloys.
Electrum is one of the few naturally occurring alloys on the planet. This alloy of gold and silver sometimes contains other metals, such as copper and platinum, and it occurs in large deposits in Turkey, in particular. The metal was used for coins, especially in ancient Greece. Another natural alloy called meteoric iron, is exactly what it sounds like. It originated from meteorites and usually contains a mixture of iron and nickel.
A Columbian volcano spews gold.
The Galeras volcano erupted gold in the 1990s, and in impressive amounts, too. One estimate put the eruption rate at 45 pounds per year. This was the first time visible gold particles were found in volcanic ash. The source of the gold was believed to be a large vein that cut across the volcano’s eruptive conduit deep under the surface, the result of a mature hydrothermal system. (See our next entry.)
Volcanoes bring metals to the Earth’s surface.
That’s right, a lot of our important metal deposits, especially minerals such as gold, silver, and copper, are brought to the surface by volcanoes, which are considered one of the largest natural metal sources on the planet. Most of this is brought up by hydrothermal fluids that circulate inside volcanoes, depositing minerals in the process. I have seen this happening firsthand while examining layers of Mount Rainier, a mountain with a large hydrothermal system and a lot of microscopic metal flakes in its ash.
Mercury is a liquid metal.
Called quicksilver, this metal is one of the few in the world that is liquid at room temperature, and it also can form a vapor. It has many uses in technology, including thermometers, lighting, and valves. As interesting as this metal appears when it’s doing its Terminator 2 impression, I advise you not to play with mercury. It is also very toxic. (We will discuss this further in another entry.)
There is only one nickel mine operating in the United States.
At one point in time, this was the Nickel Mountain Mine in Douglas County, Oregon. This mine operated for over a century, from 1882 until it closed down in 1987. Other nickel deposits are located in this part of the state but will likely never be mined due to environmental reasons. Today it is nothing more than a rockhounding site. The only operating American nickel mine today is the Eagle Mine in Michigan.
Metals are good conductors of radio waves.
Just ask an unsuspecting dude who went to be during a thunderstorm near Death Valley. He hung his bugle on the edge of his metal bedstead and laid down to go to sleep. Imagine his surprise when he started to hear a stagecoach robbery broadcast through his horn. The metal bed and horn, combined with the unsettled weather outside, formed the unusual conditions that allowed this bizarre broadcast to take place. I have had a similar thing occur through an unplugged set of headphones, which began to play the transmissions of a helicopter pilot in the middle of a stormy night.
The human body contains metal.
Several metals are found within the human body. These include, but are not limited to, iron, copper, magnesium, and zinc. These many metals serve important roles in the functions of the body, including blood sugar regulation, the making of red blood cells, the function of the metabolism and immune system, and the building of bones and teeth, to name a few. The amount of metals in the body are very delicate; too much or too little can lead to disease.
Hat-making was a dangerous business.
Men involved in hat-making in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries worked with dangerous chemicals, including the highly toxic mercury nitrate, which was used to process furs. Many of these men began to suffer negative side effects, which included signs mimicking insanity. This is where the term “mad as a hatter” was first coined.
It was once believed that lead brought down the Roman Empire.
The Romans used a lot of lead in ways that we would cringe at today. Wealthy Romans cooked in lead vessels and had drinking water brought into their houses through lead pipes. It was once believed that this caused many of the health problems that plagued more famous Romans of the day and may have eventually led to the fall of the empire. A recent study found that tap water from these pipes contained 100 times the lead than what was found in the springs of their source. However, the study also showed that there wasn’t enough lead in the water to cause the problems suspected.
Some metals burn with colored flames.
Certain metals are rather colorful when they burn. One example is mercury, which burns red. Copper burns blue or blue-green. Iron burns yellow or orange. Pink flames are produced by lithium. Burning metals and minerals are the root of the colors we see in modern fireworks. This color scale is also sometimes used to determine the composition of distant stars.
It is interesting to note that blacksmiths were considered to possess magic powers in the middle ages. It’s no wonder considering all the interesting and wonderful things they could do with metals. It was the blacksmith that kept society running in those days, producing everything from weaponry to the tools of agriculture and construction. Blacksmiths are still around today, of course, though most are working in an industrial setting rather than the back of a castle or a thatch hut. Metal is still an important part of technology today. Indeed, you would not be reading this article without the metals used in your computer or cellphone.
New York Times- www.nytimes.com
Environmental Protection Agency- www.epa.gov
Oregon Discovery- www.oregondiscovery.com
Eagle Mine- www.eaglemine.com
United States Geological Survey- www.usgs.gov
Harvard Medical School- www.health.harvard.edu
Hat Realm- www.hatrealm.com