Nova (1974–…): Season 39, Episode 17 - Hunting the Elements - full transcript

Where do nature's building blocks, called the elements, come from? They're the hidden ingredients of everything in our world, from the carbon in our bodies to the metals in our smartphones. Watch as David Pogue unlocks their secrets.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
Why do bombs go boom?

You have created fire!

I could feel that puppy!

How much gold is
in 400 tons of dirt?

There's about
a million and a half dollars there.


What's that gorilla doing there?

And how come rare earths,

the metals that make
our gadgets go,

aren't that rare at all?

Watch out with the hammer.
What are you...?

Yeah, cerium, lanthanum,

We live in a world
of incredible material variety.

Yet everything we know...

the stars, the planets,
and life itself...

comes from about 90 basic
building blocks.

You have a periodic table table!

All right here
on this remarkable chart:

the periodic table
of the elements.

It's a story that begins
with the Big Bang

and eventually leads to us.

And we're made almost entirely

of just a handful
of ingredients,

including one that burns with
secret fire inside us all.

Join me as I explore the basic
building blocks of the universe.

From some of the most common,
like oxygen...

How do you feel at this stage?

to the least...

man-made elements that last
only fractions of a second.

Strange metals
with repellant powers.

And you're saying that this
will repel the sharks.

My gosh!

Poisonous gases...

Isn't chlorine deadly?


in stuff we eat every day.

And now we can even see
what they're made of.

The dots are actual atoms?

If you're like me,

you care about the elements
and how they go together.

The humanity!

Because more than ever...

Incoming neutron!

... matter matters.

Copper is king.

Copper at 80 cents a pound!

Can we crack the code... build the world
of the future?

Join me on my hunt
for the elements.

Just now, onNOVA.

Major funding forNOVA
is provided by the following:

Far from prying
eyes, the ground erupts.

Heavy equipment moving millions
of tons of earth

in search of... something.

A secret deep underground.

I'm David Pogue.

I've managed to talk my way
into this hidden lair.

Probably almost a mile
from where we first came in.

Boy, I hope
I can talk my way out.

This area here
has been back-filled.

They tell me that so
much money flows out of this place,

it's like a gold mine.

Wait a minute...

Itisa gold mine!

But where's the gold?

It turns out that nature
has concealed

thousands of pounds of the stuff

under billions
of cubic feet of earth.

By digging, these guys are
hoping to strike it rich.

But that's not why I'm here.

I'm on a quest to understand

the basic building blocks
of everyday matter.

They're called the elements.

These symbols represent
the atoms

that make up every single thing
in our universe.

118 unique substances arranged
on an amazing chart

that reveals their
hidden secrets

to anyone who knows
how to read it.

It's a journey that dives deep
into the metals of civilization,

marvels at the mysteries
of the extremely reactive,

reveals hidden powers,

and harnesses secrets of life,

from hydrogen

to uranium and beyond.

I'm starting with one
of humanity's

first elemental loves:



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.

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.

Gold is unique among the metals.

It doesn't rust or tarnish.

It's virtually indestructible,
yet also soft and malleable.

It was a sacred material
to ancient people.

And it's never lost its luster.

The problem is, it's exceedingly
rare stuff in the earth's crust,

and it's getting harder to find
all the time.

Here at the Cortez Mine
in Nevada,

high-tech prospectors
are moving mountains,

closing in from above and below.

This rock face is about a
quarter mile below the surface.

And according to John Taule,
it's loaded with gold.


And what would it look like?

Like yellow, metallic streaks
in the walls?

No, it's really hard
to tell from the rock,

because it's microscopic,
you can't see the gold.

The gold is microscopic?

Yes, you can't see it
with the naked eye.

So we're way past the days

of finding big gold nuggets
sticking out of the wall, going,

"Hey Bob, I got one here!"

We're past that now?

That's correct.

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?

That's where Gayle Fitzwater
and the assay team come in.

Every day, she receives hundreds
of samples of earth

taken from the mine.

Her job is to figure out

how much gold is
in them there rocks.

To get at the color,
it has to be crushed...

Do you want ice cream with this?

... shuffled like
a deck of cards...

I think I've seen one of these
machines at Starbucks.

... then pulverized to the
consistency of baby powder.

I don't see any more rocks
in here.

But the bad news is, I don't see
any gold in here, either.

The good news is that
we haven't finished.

There may be still gold
hiding in the mix.

The sample, mixed with
a lead oxide powder,

goes into a furnace
heated to 2,000 degrees.

It's a 500-year-old process
called a fire assay.

Using extreme heat, gold atoms
are gradually coaxed away

from the powdered rock.

So after all that pulverizing

and crushing and weighing
and firing,

what we're left with is this,
these little teacups?

What you're going to be able
to see in here

is a gold bead
that was recovered

from that sample
that you crushed.

Um, no.

Okay, come on.

This is like the emperor's
new teacup.

There's nothing in here except
that little tiny piece of dust.

That's a piece of gold.

That actually weighs
about a half a milligram.

So all that work gave you only
a half a milligram of gold?

It equals out

to about one ounce per ton.

An ounce of gold
for every ton of rock?

That's right, and...

That's a terrible business!

You'll never make any money.

When you went in the mine

and you were able to see
the trucks that we had,

those are 400-ton haul packs.

If you had 400 tons of material
at one ounce per ton...

400 tons and one ounce of gold
for each ton.

At that rate, that's 25 pounds
of gold for every truck.

And at $1,800 an ounce...

$1,800 times...

$720,000 a truck!

This is a fantastic business!

How do I get in on this?

Turns out that an ounce per ton

is pretty much optimal
for the underground mine.

The surface mine produces less,
about half an ounce per ton.

To see what it takes

to get something bigger
than that tiny bead,

I visit the processing plant
where the ore ends up.

Just another day in
the gold refinery.

Here too, extraction begins
with crushing

in these huge tumblers.

And that sets the stage
for the trickiest step:

coaxing the microscopic gold out
of the rocky ore.

About three quarters
of the elements are metals.

And gold is one of the most

How an atom reacts chemically
depends on how willing it is

to share electrons with others.

And gold is not very social.

Like Greta Garbo,

it wants to be alone.

So do other so-called
noble metals...

silver, platinum, palladium,
osmium and iridium...

all located in the same
quiet neighborhood

of the periodic table.

Using cyanide to react
with the gold

allows them to gradually reduce

40,000 gallon tanks
of pulverized sludge...

to this.

Three trays full of... mud?

But there's not gold
in here, is there?

There's a little bit of carbon
that's mixed in with this

that's changed the color on it.

But I assure you that when we
melt it and pour it down, Dave,

we're going to have gold.

All right, and how much gold...
Like, how many gold bars...

will this array make?

This should produce
about a bar and a half.

All right, and all derived

from one 40,000-gallon batch
of solution?


So, 40,000 gallons got
distilled down to this,

and that will get distilled down
to a bar and a half?

Just, exactly.

The golden mud goes
into a 2,000-degree induction furnace

along with a white powder
called flux,

chemicals that prevent
the molten gold

from reacting with
or sticking to anything.

This is the first time
an outsider

has been allowed to pour gold.

Just call me King Midas.

I'm not sure they entirely know
what they're doing,

but they are going
to let me pour the gold

into a gold bar mold.

If it goes over 70 pounds,
it's a reject.

They'll have to throw it away

or just let me take it home
in my luggage.

So, you know, I'll...
I'll do my best not to spill.

There's a lot of money
at stake here.

Here it comes.

Hot gold.

Get your hot gold here.

Just there.

It's a gold bar,
ladies and gentlemen.

It's been my pleasure.

See you next week!

Perfect job.

cool and clean the bars.

Stamp them with their unique
serial numbers

and their weights.

So this is it,
the proverbial gold bars.

And you know what?

They're still warm.

They're still warm,
hot off the press.

Can I pick one of these up?

It's not may I, it's can I.


This thing...

So this is, what, 70 pounds?

It's about 60 pounds.

60 pounds?


It's nothing.

And about how much value here?

There is about a million-
and-a-half dollars there, Dave.


Mike, what's that gorilla
doing there?

They're deceptively heavy.

Only a few natural elements
have greater density than gold:

rhenium, platinum,
iridium, and osmium.

Mike tells me
that each bar represents

about a million pounds of rock

that had to be moved
and processed.

Eight bars, 12 million dollars

sitting on this unassuming
little table.

What a transformation.

Of all the elements
that touch our lives,

nothing drives humankind

to acts of love or destruction
like gold.

It is perhaps the most emotional
of the elements.

But two rows above gold
is another metal of antiquity




29 protons, 29 electrons.

The ancients first learned
how to heat rocks

to extract copper
at least 7,000 years ago.

And today, it's one of the most
widely bought and sold metals

in the world.

The New York Mercantile Exchange

is a vital hub
in the global metals market.

Which is pretty good news
for me.

At least, I thought so...

Sorry sir, you can't
come in with this.

I thought this is
a copper exchange.

I'm here to exchange
some copper.

I'm sorry, that's not allowed
on the floor,

you can't come in with this.


The only business that they're
willing to do here

is to buy or sell
copper futures.

Like who would fall for that?

this is an old, old business.

This goes back to the 1800s,
the late 1800s,

where farmers were looking,

for money to plant
their next year's crops.

So what the farmers would do is
they would say, for example,

"David, you loan me
some money," okay,

"and then in the future,
I will sell you that crop

that I planted
for this amount of dollars."

Eighteen and a half...

So what I'm doing is,

I'm selling you the right
to buy or sell my future crops.

So this crazy hi-tech thing

began as a glorified
farmers market.

In fact, this exchange
in New York

started as a butter and cheese
exchange on Harrison Street.

Is it safe to say there's
no cheese pit here somewhere?

Gruyere, gruyere,
cheddar, cheddar!

David, you have to go
to Chicago for that.

They still do that?

Yeah, they still trade
agricultural products.

I would think that there would
be trading markets like this

for gold, and silver,
and platinum,

and things that are valuable.

But copper?

Come on, it's like pennies,
it's like...

Copper is king, okay?

Copper is used for everything.

It's a really vital metal.

We use it for infrastructure,
we use it for electronic goods.

I can hardly think of anything

that doesn't have either a tiny
bit of copper or lots of copper.

I love copper.

I do, I do.
I'm getting that.

Harriet tells me
that the copper market is huge.

Traders in New York,
London, and Shanghai

buy and sell more than
20 million tons a year.

Copper is in wire,
electronics and computer chips,

plumbing and other building

It's so important that the rise
and fall of copper prices

provide a snapshot of the health
of the entire world economy.

When times are bad,
copper prices tumble.

And when times are good,
they soar.

Some say it should be called
Dr. Copper,

because it's the only metal
with a Ph.D. in economics.

Copper has been prized
for millennia

for its unique properties.

It conducts electricity better
than any metal except silver.

It's malleable and has
a moderate melting temperature.

It even scares away bacteria.

These guys can trade
their copper futures.

I've got to unload
my copper today.


Get your commodities!

Got copper at 80 cents a pound.



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.

That secret ingredient?




50 protons and 50 electrons.

Tin added in small amounts
to copper makes bronze,

the first man-made metal alloy.

Bronze helped to spur
global trade.

And once forged into tools
and weapons,

it played a defining role
in the empires of antiquity.

Bronze named an entire age
of human civilization.

And even today,
it's still hanging around.

This is the Verdin Company,

a 170-year-old family-run
business in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I'm here because they're about
to cast several bells.

Even with all the other
modern materials available,

they still choose bronze.

I want to know why.

Hasn't something better come
along after all these years?

Ralph Jung offers to make
the case for bronze.

This is our pattern
that we're gonna use

to actually make the form
in the sand.

So this looks like
a finished bell.

This isn't a bell?
Yes, it does.

This is just the pattern, yes.

It's made out of aluminum,
so it's real easy to handle.

Well, what's wrong with that?

Aluminum's good.

Aluminum doesn't rust,
Aluminum's light...

You're right, it doesn't.

Why don't you make the bells
out of this?

Well, the sound.

It doesn't have
that lasting ring.

And it just...

You don't like how that sounds?

Not really.

It sounds kinda tinny, also.

Thanks a lot, buddy.

Well, you know...

I practiced.

We'll show you what
a real bell sounds like.

The quality of the sound

depends on the atomic structure
of the material.

In pure metals,
the atoms are arranged

in orderly rows and columns.

Each atom gives up
some of its electrons

to create a kind of sea

of these randomly-moving
charged particles.

It's these free-flowing

that make metals conductive.

When placed in a circuit,

the negatively charged
particles line up

and flow as an electric current.

The sea of electrons

also creates flexible
metallic bonds among the atoms.

In copper, they can slide past
each other easily,

which makes it relatively soft
and easy-to-dent.

Not right for a bell.

That's why Verdin
uses stiffer stuff.

So we'll put
this down into here...

Ralph places the
form into a circular steel sleeve,

then fills the space around it
with a mixture of sand and epoxy

to withstand the searing heat
of the hot metal.

When this company started,

they used a mixture
of horsehair, manure,

and just about anything else

that would hold a shape
without burning.

to create a hollow shape

that follows the inner and outer
perimeter of the bell.

Once he removes the aluminum
and joins the two halves,

a bell-shaped space
remains on the inside,

ready to accept
the molten bronze.

And what we have here, David,

is the bronze ingots that we use
to put in the furnace.

As you can see, they're...

they've got a little bit
of heft to them.

Yeah, it's like...

They average about 20 pounds.

That's a...
that's a mixture, actually,

of 80% copper and 20% tin.

And what we have here is
the tin in a raw form.

This is how it comes out
of the ground.

This is from Malaysia.

And we have a chunk of copper

the way it comes out
of the ground.

And that's from South Africa.

So that's the recipe for bronze.


So you've got copper
plus tin equals bronze.

Equals bronze, yeah.

Why couldn't you use one of
those metals by themselves?

Why don't you make bells
out of just copper?

If it was all copper,

it would first of all
be too soft,

and we wouldn't get that sound
that we want from a bell.

Tin with copper
gives us that hardness.

Adding tin to
copper during melting

changes the properties
of the metal.

The larger tin atoms

restrict the movement
of the copper atoms,

making the material harder.

A blow causes the atoms
to vibrate,

but the tin prevents them from
moving too far out of position.

Tin is good for a bell,

but only in the right

This is what can happen if
the amount of tin isn't right.

No one is certain why
the Liberty Bell cracked,

but a chemical analysis
indicated there was too much tin

and perhaps other impurities
in the bronze.

The crack could have been caused

by the way the atoms
were arranged within the metal.

Too much tin, and the copper
atoms can't move at all.

One good whack, and...

When the bronze has reached
the proper temperature...

2,200 degrees Fahrenheit...
It's time to pour.

Is there any, danger
involved in this process?

Well, if you consider getting
burned a danger, yes, there is.

During the pour,
speed is of the essence.

If the metal is allowed to cool,

flaws could develop,
ruining the bell.

Even though the foundry
has the technology

to precisely control
the temperature,

and Ralph and his team have
decades of experience,

bronze remains unpredictable.

Out of every hundred bells
they pour, 20 or 30 will fail.

That was quite a process.

I appreciate your letting me
help out like that.

I think we got three
successful bells out of this,

but anything can go wrong.

So you just don't know until
after you open up the molds

and see what you've got.

The bells have to cool
for 24 hours,

so it's the next day
before we can find out

if they'll be making music
or ending up as scrap.

So what am I gonna see inside?

A gleaming chrome,
silver magnificent church bell

ready for hanging?

Actually no, you're gonna see...

I like to refer to them
as a newborn baby.

They come out kind of ugly
and not so pretty,

but they clean up really well.

Wow, I can feel...

I can feel waves of heat
coming off of this.

Yes, it's still quite warm.

Is it... is it touchable?

Yes, it's touchable.

Speak for yourself, dude.

And what happens
to a carefully crafted sand mold?

It's history.

Is this an actual bell that you
can actually sell to somebody?

Yes, yes, we're gonna...

This will be
on the market very soon.

So I really do need
to not chip it.

That would be good.

So what about all this
black sooty stuff?

So that's going to have
to be cleaned off of there.

You got some kind of big

Actually no, I got this.

Well, that was
a big waste of time.

You missed a big spot over here.

I guess that's okay
for a rookie.

Well, thank you so much, Ralph.

And now
for the moment of truth.

Will this bell
be good enough to sing?

What time is it?

Time to celebrate

the millennia-old tradition
of bronze.

Our bell resonates
with a beautiful tone,

and it takes many seconds
for the note to die out

thanks to the interplay
between copper and tin.

Even the best bell makers

can't know whether their bronze
will be too stiff, or too soft,

until they pour a bell
and strike it.

I wonder, though,

if there's a more scientific way
to evaluate the metal.

To find out, I'm taking
a piece of it

to David Muller
at Cornell University.

He's offered to show me

how the atoms in our bronze
stack up... literally.

I brought you a couple
of hunks of bronze,

one of which was knocked off
of a bell when it was done

and one of which is unpoured.

And I wouldn't mind
taking a look at these

under your magic microscope.


Now, this is actually
a lot of material.

I need an area about
the size of a farm,

and you've given me the whole
of the United States.

So we're gonna cut it down
a little bit.

Now watch out, it's hot.

It's what?

First, a polishing
wheel gives the bronze

a mirror-like finish.

Then the sample is inserted

into a powerful electron

David tells me that when
we reach full magnification,

we will have images of
the actual atoms in the bronze,

something few people
have ever seen.

Frankly, it seems
a little farfetched.

So what's in there right now?

What are we looking at?

So we have a piece of the bronze
that we cut earlier,

very similar to this one.

Now, I have to say,

this microscope is not
especially impressive.

I mean, I'm seeing
the entire circle,

like I'm just wearing a pair
of reading glasses or something.

This is like having
a map of the United States,

and eventually
we want to zoom in,

and we wanna pick out one car
parked somewhere in the U.S.

We'll have to zoom in a
hundred million times to see an atom.

To understand the scale,

imagine if I were
floating in space

2,000 miles above the Earth,

looking down
at the United States.

Zooming in a hundred
million times

would allow me to pick out
not just a car,

but a bug crawling in the grass
next to it.

So we can zoom in from here?


How do you do that?

So there's the zoom button.

The big knob
labeled "Magnification"?


So crank up the mag and let's
see what happens as you zoom in.


I see a little tiny cartoon sign

that says,
"Welcome to Whoville!"

To see atoms, we need to
find an interesting region to sample.

Now it's starting to look like
an alien surface.


Now what we're actually
starting to see

is the microstructure
of the grains in that bronze.

And the brighter colors

are things that
contain more tin.

And the things with less tin

are the things
that are slightly darker.

My gosh, that is so cool.

The microscopic
structure of metals is not uniform.

Small features called grains
become visible.

Boundaries between grains
are actually defects

in the orderly arrangement
of the atoms.

So you can't see atoms
with this microscope.

We can get almost all the way
there, but not quite.


And to look at atoms, we're
gonna need a bigger machine.

Do you have one?

We certainly do.

This huge thing?

This giant room-size thing
in a shipping container?

And why is it draped
in shipping crate material?

Those are acoustic blankets.

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 gonna...

is gonna give enough
mechanical vibration

to shake this thing around.

We only have to shake things by
an atom for the image to vanish.

So our little piece of bronze

that we've dug out
of the first machine

is now the little
black disc there?

Well, that's the three-
millimeter support disc.

The actual bronze chip itself

is about a hundredth
the thickness of a human hair.

It's too small for us to see,

so we have to mount it
on a carrier grid

so we can handle it.

So you've essentially
put it on a little plate.

That's right.

Are you telling me that
I can see individual atoms

of my piece of bell?

That's correct.

Scientists have
understood since the early 20th century

that metals are crystals.

That is, they have an orderly
arrangement of atoms.

By bombarding samples
with x-rays,

they were able to create
shadowy images

of that crystal structure.

But the idea that we might
one day see actual atoms

was beyond imagination.

If David's microscope
is powerful enough,

we should see regular rows
of copper atoms

with tin atoms packed
in between.

Or so the theory predicts.

The dots are atoms?

That's right.

Each individual dot is an atom.

We are seeing actual atoms
of my little bell piece?

The bright ones,
those are the tin atoms,

and the slightly darker ones,
those are the copper atoms.

And isn't it kind of like
a mind-blower

that we're actually looking
at actual atoms?

I mean, isn't this a historic
technological achievement?

Every time people see
that for the first time,

they get really excited.

To actually see atoms... amazing!

Well, what can we learn
about this?

Like, for one thing,

I notice they're really,
really grid-like.

They're like a little aerial
photo of a planned community.

That's actually the stacking
of the atoms in the material.

The pattern that it orders into,

that is the crystal
structure directly.

David tells
me we got very lucky.

The atoms in our bronze
are unusually well-ordered.

Our bell makers must be
true masters of their craft.

Well, thanks for my tour

into the...
to the unseen

and to what used to be
the purely theoretical.

I can't believe I can now put on
my resume that I've seen atoms.

Thanks for the tour.

It was a pleasure.

This amazing
ability to see atoms

has opened up new worlds
for scientists.

Muller's lab has
successfully captured

many other images of atoms
in gold and computer chips,

oxygen, powerful magnets,
and even glass.

But even so, they've barely
scratched the surface

because they can discern

only the outermost boundaries
around atoms.

The interior is 10,000 times

If the outer boundary
of a hydrogen atom,

where the electron is found,

were enlarged to be two miles
wide, about the size of a city,

the single proton in its nucleus

would be the size
of a golf ball.

It's here we find elements
at their most elemental,

because every nucleus
contains protons

and it's the number of protons

that determines what kind
of element the atom is.

One proton is hydrogen.

Two protons, helium.

Three protons, lithium.

Four protons, beryllium.

All the way up to element 118,
with 118 protons.

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.

Wow, this is cool.

You have a periodic table table!

Well, it's
called the periodic table,

why do people keep putting them
on the wall?

Every high school
student has seen the elements chart

but author Theo Gray's version
is unique...

handmade, with each element's
identity card

meticulously carved
into the wood.

But I have to say I've never
completely gotten it, right?

They're filled with stats
and figures

that don't make any sense
to the ordinary person.

Theo gives me a refresher.

You've got the name
of the element.

You've got the atomic symbol.

Ca for calcium.


You've got
the atomic number,

which is the number of protons

in the nucleus of each atom
of that element.

It's probably the most important
thing on this tile.

So where's gold?

Gold's right there, number 79.

Okay, so here's
a classic example.

They would do much better
with marketing this table

if the name
and the symbol matched.

Gold doesn't even have
"Au" in it.

The symbol is based on
the Latin name, aurum.

And if you think about it,
the name of each element

is the least important piece
of information

you could possibly have.

What matters about elements

is that they are real
physical substances

with properties and things
you can do with them.

Theo makes the point by
putting me in touch with the real deal.

I see what you've done.

To make the entire table
less abstract,

he invites me to lay out

the rest of his collection
of pure elements.

Well, this is really
pretty amazing.

This is a visual representation
of every single element

that makes up this entire planet
and everything on it.

Then Theo reminds
me of something I'd forgotten.

As we can clearly see,

more than 70% of the elements
on the table are metals...

shiny, malleable materials
that conduct electricity.

There's sort
of a diagonal line here.

Everything from here on over,

including the bottom part,
is all metals.

Everything from here on over
is non-metals.

And down the middle

are these kind of halfway
in between things

which include, for example,

Like silicon.
Silicon, right.

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.

The one I was looking at
in particular was calcium.

Most people probably
think of calcium

as white and chalky, you know.

It's bone, it's chalk,

it's, it's milk.

But this is a silver,
shiny metal.

This is when Theo's collection

starts to get really

when he pairs the pure elements
with their more familiar forms.

Like pure calcium metal

combine with other elements
to make bone.

Bismuth, in stomach medicine.

Bromine, in soda.

And even this element,

hiding out
in collectible Fiesta ware.

This bowl from the 1930s gets
its orange color from uranium,

and it's actually dangerously

Theo's table and his
remarkable collection

make a powerful point.

From about 90 elements
found on earth,

nature and man have derived
millions of different substances

that make our world.

But to me, there's something
even more amazing:

the table organizes the elements
by atomic number...

that is, the number of protons
in each atom.

Yet the table's creator...

a 19th-century Russian
chemistry professor

named Dmitri Mendeleev...

knew nothing about protons
or atomic numbers.

Even the atom itself
hadn't been discovered.

To understand how he cracked
the code of the table,

I've come to St. Petersburg,
Russia, to the State University

and to Mendeleev's apartment
and office.

In the late 1860s,
at this very desk,

Mendeleev set out to discover

the underlying order
to the elements.

In one often-repeated story,

Mendeleev is said to have
created 63 cards,

one for each of the elements
known at the time.

He distinguished them
not by atomic number,

but by atomic weight.

So he didn't know about atoms,

but isn't this
the atomic weight?

How does he know the weight
if he doesn't know about atoms?

It's not in
grams or pounds or kilograms.

In the 19th century,
they did it like this.

They compared the weights
of different elements

to the lightest, hydrogen.

So when they say oxygen is 16,

that means 16 times
the weight of hydrogen.

scientists relied on relative weight

to order the elements.

Imagine if you have
two containers,

one full of red marbles,
one full of blue marbles.

If both contain the same number
of marbles,

but the blue container
weighs twice as much,

you can infer that the blue
marbles weigh twice as much

as the red marbles,

even if you can't see
the marbles at all.

Early chemists devised
clever ways

of calculating the weights
of elements... even gases...


So the chemists knew
that different elements

have different weights.

But why not just
one big line forever?

Mendeleev decided
that he would arrange them by weight,

but also by family.

This is one
of Mendeleev's charts.

You can see hydrogen sticking
out just as it does today.

The families he knew are
now arranged in columns.

This one has the metals...
Lithium, sodium, and potassium...

that explode in water.

Next door, calcium
and magnesium,

which also react with water.

This big block in the middle are
metals that are safe to handle,

like nickel,
iron, zinc, and gold.

As we go to the right, the
elements become less metallic.

These columns are headed
by boron, carbon, and nitrogen.

In this neighborhood,

some elements conduct
electricity, some don't,

and some can't make up
their minds.

But next door
is a more volatile crowd,

headed by oxygen and fluorine.

The table gets its shape from
the properties of the elements,

like relative weight,
conductivity, and reactivity.

It's true today as it was
in Mendeleev's time.

Though his chart displayed

only the 63 elements known
at the time,

his understanding of the family
properties was so strong

he was able to leave gaps
in his chart,

bold predictions of elements
yet to be discovered.

And when they were eventually
found, they proved

completely consistent
with his descriptions.

Mendeleev lived until 1907,

long enough to see
three gaps filled

by the discoveries of scandium,
gallium, and germanium.

Since his death, dozens of new
elements have been discovered.

And, incredibly,

his chart perfectly
accommodates all of them,

including an entire group
that fits neatly

onto the end of the table:

the noble gases.

Where does that term
"noble gases" come from?

Are they nobility?

Do they rush to rescue maidens?

No, you're thinking of heroes.

They are like nobility
in the sense that

they don't mix
with the riff-raff.

They don't like to react
with any other elements.

By and large, it's not possible
to form compounds with them.

Well, it's a shame for your
collection that they're gases,

because you've got
big blanks here.


The noble
gases, like neon and argon,

pose a problem for chemists
who prefer their elements

to join forces
and react with each other.

You can run an electric current
through them,

excite their electrons,
and get pretty colors...

which is how neon lights work...

but the noble gases don't react.

They pretty much refuse
to combine with other elements.

Being an inert
gas, being unwilling to mix

with the other elements,
react with them...

this is a very clear-cut

that sets apart
this particular column

from all the others
in the periodic table.

So why are these guys so aloof?

As it turns out,

protons may determine
the identity of an element,

but electrons rule
its reactivity.

And reactivity is a shell game.

Here's how the game is played.

Imagine that these balls
are electrons

and the target is an atom.

Electrons don't just pile on
around the nucleus.

As with skee ball,

where you land relative
to the center counts.

Come on!

The electrons take up positions

in what can be thought of
as concentric shells.

The first shell maxes out
at just two electrons.

The next holds eight,

then it goes up to eighteen.

An atom with eight electrons
in its outer shell

makes one happy, satisfied atom.

And noble gases
come pre-equipped

with completely
satisfied shells.

And is this the only column
like that?

It's the only column

where all the shells
are completely filled.

But what about the column
just before those stable noble gases?

They're called the halogens.

They have an outer shell

that needs just one more
electron to be full.

And they'll grab it
any way they can.

The group includes fluorine
and bromine,

but the most notorious
is chlorine...

17 protons
surrounded by 17 electrons,

arranged in three shells
of two, eight, and seven,

one short of being full.

It's that extra electron

chlorine will get
any way it can,

sometimes with violent results.

That's why chlorine gas was used

as a deadly poison
in World War One.

Chlorine, I mean,
this is nasty stuff.

This will take electrons
from kittens.

It'll go and steal an electron
off the water in your lungs

and turn into hydrochloric acid

because it really wants
an electron.

Yeah, maybe I'll leave that
where it was.

Now, if you go
the other direction,

you end up with
the alkali metals.

The alkali
metals are the first column.

Each of them has full shells

plus one extra electron sitting
in a new, outer shell.

They have familiar names like
lithium, sodium, and potassium.

And they all want to get rid of
that single, lonely electron

any way they can.

So those on that end
of the table all have one extra.

This column all has one too few.

I shudder to ask what happens

if you put those two alone
in a room.

I happen to have a place where
we might be able to do that.

Am I invited?

Please, come to my lair.

Turns out there's
more to my friend Theo

than mere love of table.

He's also got a deep love
of chemical reactions,

and a very remote location where
he's free to indulge it.

Okay, they told me you were
outstanding in your field,

but this is ridiculous.

Yeah, well, you know the secret

no neighbors.

Theo has an infectious attitude

toward the most
reactive elements...


...which reminds me
of a snake handler's affection

for his most venomous pets.

The humanity!

And one of his
favorite temperamental friends?



11 protons and 11 electrons

arranged in shells
as two, eight, and one.

Sodium is an alkali metal.

Like all the elements
in this group,

it's desperate to get rid
of that extra electron.

If you cut it quickly...

I should see some silvery...

you should see
a silvery surface inside.



It slices like cheese,
but it's actually a soft metal.

Theo's offered to put on

one of his favorite
sodium demonstrations.

What happens when the pure
element dumps its outer electron

in a violent altercation
with ordinary water?

He insists we wait
until nightfall,

when the reaction will be
most spectacular.

Kids, do not try this at home!

The whole purpose
of this contraption

is just to dump it
into the bucket of water?

Yeah, this is a sodium-dumping

All right,
let's give this a try.

Here we go!


What we're
seeing is what happens

when sodium's extra electron
tears apart water molecules,

releasing flammable hydrogen
gas... the H in H2O...

which explodes when it mixes
with air.

The next day,
Theo takes it up a notch.

As if sodium plus water
weren't violent enough,

now he wants to combine
the same deadly sodium

with another lethal element:

chlorine, one of the halogens.

The result, he claims,

will be a tasty flavoring
for a net full of popcorn.

Isn't chlorine deadly poison?


I mean, chlorine, chlorine...

they used it as a poison gas
in World War I.

It'll be perfectly safe

when these two deadly
ingredients combine.

I didn't say that.

I said that
after they're combined,

the result is perfectly safe.

The actual process
of combining them

is fraught with difficulties.

Okay, and that's why we're
dressed up like miners here.

First, a hunk of
sodium in a dry metal bowl.

Then, a jet of pure chlorine.

Surprisingly, no explosion.

Somehow, when these two bad boys
of the periodic table

come together, they calm down.

At the atomic level,
sodium, an alkali metal,

had an electron it didn't want,

and chlorine, a halogen, wants
desperately to grab an electron.

Once the handoff was complete,

both atoms wound up
with full shells,

making them stable and able
to join together

to form a crystal compound
we can't live without:

sodium chloride.

Table salt.

Now I don't exactly see, like,
a pile of salt anywhere.

No, the salt, most of it
went up in the smoke.

That is, it went in the popcorn.

It tastes like salt.

The good stuff.

Fresh salt.

Only the freshest salt
at Theo's farm.

Theo's backyard reactions
have given me a crucial insight.

How elements come together
to form compounds

is all about electrons.

Which brings me to one
of the most notorious

electron hounds on the table:



Eight protons, eight electrons.

It wants eight electrons
to complete its outer shell,

but it has only six.

So it's always on the prowl
for two more.

And it's more determined

than almost any other element
on the table.

To get a first-hand look
at oxygen's lust for electrons,

I've traveled to the Energetic
Materials Research

and Testing Center
at New Mexico Tech,

where the business of violent
reactions is booming.

What he has here in the rear is
four pounds of C4.

Four pounds?

It's a deadly serious
business for researchers who study

improvised explosive devices...

By adding the 5/16ths nuts,
now we have something

that's going to get
propelled out of here

at a few thousand feet
per second.

They have a wide
variety of explosives on hand.

On a typical day, they might
blow up a suicide vest,

a few pipe bombs,

and a briefcase bomb.

Tim Collister's job is

to train law enforcement
and fire professionals

how to deal with these
dangerous weapons.

But today, I'm his only student.

We're going to set off
one of the most powerful

off-the-shelf explosives
there is:

in the trunk of this car,
300 pounds of ANFO,

unassuming white pellets
that contain enough oxygen,

as well as nitrogen
and hydrogen,

to turn this car
into a scrap heap.

Basically, it's
a fertilizer bomb.

This is not something
I'm going to soon forget.

No, you're not.

Three, two, one.

Hundreds of
pounds of solid explosive,

transformed in a millionth
of a second

into an infernal ball
of superheated gas,

expanding at more than ten times
the speed of sound.

A devastating chemical reaction,
yet many times smaller

than the most notorious
ANFO bomb ever detonated.

In 1995, over 4,000 pounds of
ANFO loaded into a rented truck

destroyed the Federal Building
in Oklahoma City,

killing and injuring
hundreds of people.

It's incredibly
destructive stuff.

How does it work?

I don't know about you,

but I am not seeing
much car over there.

That's 'cause there's
not much car left, David.

To find out, I turn to
the lab's chief research chemist,

Christa Hockensmith.

The tires are still there.

She's an expert in
the chemistry of explosives.


doesn't smell so good, does it?


You know, we thought
maybe the engine

would become a projectile
to come hurtling out.

The engine did not leave,
but the entire car did!

This whole front half...

and the car used to be parked
over there!

With her help...

Look at this!

...I'm going to conduct

a forensic investigation
of the blast site.


But there's not much left.

What kind of evidence
can you derive from this?

I mean, the car is
totally decimated.

No, we can do good work
on finding out

what caused this explosion
with the magic swabs.

We know
what was in the bomb...

I'm getting the hang
of this now.

Yeah, you are,
you're getting good.

But in an
actual criminal investigation,

this work is vital.

We're not picking up only filth.

What we're picking up is what
the bomb was made with.

You think there's going
to be traces

even on this fragment?

Not if you stick
your fingers on it, no.

But otherwise, yes.

What you're gonna find is...

When we take these
back to the lab...

That we'll be able to tell

what elements were present
in the bomb.

So much energy
released so quickly...

did oxygen have a role?

Still runs!

So, David, what did you think
of that car bomb?

Wicked cool.

Yes, it was.

You have the luckiest job
in the world.

You got the swab?

Here's your swab.

Christa instructs me to dip
the pad into purified water...

You can shake this up.

Like that?

To dissolve any chemical traces

recovered from the debris.

Covered with paper pulp?

No, covered with nasty.

There you are.

You go like this?

Shall I suck it up?


That's plenty.


Stick it right back into
the ion chromatograph.

Okay, you'll just feel
a little pinch...

The ion chromatograph

looks for positively
or negatively charged molecules

called ions in the residue,

fragments of the original
chemical explosive.

Well, there appears to be
a spike right here

at number three.

There sure does.

What use is this analysis?

Can you tell
the State Department

where the bomb came from?

I can.


And have you?

Do they bring you...?

I can't talk about that.

You can just say yes or no.

You can wink.

No, I can't.

elements show up as spikes

in different locations
on the graph.

Christa tells me this spike
indicates that oxygen

is at work here, contained
in molecules called nitrates.

Nitrates consist
of three oxygen atoms

bound to a central
nitrogen atom.

To set off the bomb,

an initial spark of heat
breaks those bonds.

Once set free, oxygen rushes
away from the nitrogen

to combine with the elements
it prefers...

carbon, hydrogen,
and even other oxygen atoms...

leaving the nitrogen to pair up
with each other.

Every time atoms form
a new bond,

the reaction releases energy.

And that's what powers
the explosion.

But, in fact, we see similar
oxygen reactions every day.

Like ordinary fire.

The heat of this flame
is generated

when carbon atoms in the wick
bond with oxygen in the air.

Or rust, a very slow reaction
when iron and oxygen combine.

Oxygen makes engines rev,
rockets roar.

And in exactly the same way,

oxygen reacts
with the food we eat,

releasing energy
like countless tiny fires

burning in our cells,
keeping us alive.

All of these combustion

are essentially the same.

The only difference is speed.

So how do you speed up a fire
to create an explosion?

You regulate
the amount of oxygen

and how closely it's packed
together with other elements.

As a final demonstration,
Christa wants to show me

how chemists have learned to
control the speed of combustion.

She has arranged the use
of a high-speed camera

to record several different
types of explosives.

We take cover.



The first demonstration
will be ordinary gunpowder.

So pure gunpowder
is our first test here, right?

Yes, this is a smokeless powder.


Nicely done!

It was quick, but it wasn't
blisteringly quick.

The gunpowder
contains its own oxygen,

but it's in a mixture
of powdered chemicals

held far away from the carbon
it needs to bond with.

But when they finally find
their partners,

the new bonds they form
release lots of energy.

Gunpowder is a relatively
slow explosive.

That's why it's used in guns.

It creates enough force
to fire a projectile,

but not enough
to damage the barrel.

So you're saying there
must be explosives that...

We're going to get faster
and faster.

Next is an
emulsion gel explosive.

Its main ingredient
is ammonium nitrate,

the same stuff
that blew up the car.

A lot more oxygen
and a lot of nitrogen

packed very closely together
in a liquid.

Three... two... one.


Man, I could feel
that puppy through here.

This is a high explosive.

It generates a shock wave

that moves faster
than the speed of sound.

In this explosive, oxygen,
hydrogen and nitrogen

are so close together

they lose no time
finding new partners

and making new bonds
that release energy.

The final demonstration
is one pound of C4...

a military-grade high explosive

which burns fast enough
to cut steel.

Five, four,
three, two, one.


There's nothing to see.

It was there, and it was gone!

C4 assembles oxygen, nitrogen,
hydrogen and carbon

in high concentration...
Close together,

all on a big molecule,

so the speed of the reaction
is blisteringly fast.

And that gives me an idea.

Maybe C4 can help me exorcise
a personal demon.

What can I say?

I have issues.

Quite frankly, Christa,

I've been looking forward
to this one the most.

I am with you 100%.


Let's do it to the clown.

Let's do it to the clown!

Three, two, one.


Well, the world is minus one

and I am out of therapy.

The oxygen that
powers all those explosions

makes up 21% of our atmosphere.

It's the most abundant element
in the earth's crust.

It's also a big part of us.

Which makes me wonder.

What other elements
make life possible?

What, for example, is in me?

What's in a David?

Amazingly, I'm mostly made
of just six elements:

nonmetals, mainly
from a small neighborhood

on the periodic table...

carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen,

oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur.

Or, as some prefer
to call them, CHNOPS.

These are the elements that form
the basis of all living things,

from the most primitive bacteria

to the largest creatures
on earth.

It seems incredible
that so much diversity

could spring
from such a tiny list.

But what I don't get is,
why these six?




Sorry, I'm late for class.

professor Christine Thomas

at Brandeis University

has agreed to help me understand
what makes me tick.

I was told that you can help me
understand C-H-N-O-P-S, CHNOPS.

The elements of life.

Better than that, she's
going to show me the actual elements

in the actual quantities
that are in me.

But I don't get how.

I've prepared for you


You'll have to show me this.

Where do you
go to find the elements

that make up a 185-pound man?

Isn't it a little weird

that we're shopping
for the elements of life

at a hardware store?

Does seem a little
strange at first.

But in fact,
they're all here in these aisles

starting with C... carbon.

All right, charcoal,
right over here.


I don't think of the human body
being made of charcoal.

It's made of carbon,
and... you know, just trust me.


Yup, that's next.

We're going to get it
right here, in water.

In fact, we're going to get
both hydrogen and oxygen

all in one place.

So next on the list is nitrogen.

This is fertilizer.

It is, and fertilizer,
as it turns out,

has a lot of nitrogen in it,
just like you.

I've been told I'm
full of... never mind.

Next is phosphorus.

I'm not seeing phosphorus.

There's in fact phosphorus
in these matches.

You're probably going to need

probably all of the matches
that they have here.

There you go!

That ought to do.

Hi there.

How are you?

Just a couple things.

We're having a couple people
over for grill.

168 bucks?!

All the vital elements in this
magnificent body, 168 bucks?

Yup, that's it.

So you're telling me
that our hardware store haul here

actually is representative

of the CHNOPS elements
in all life?

And roughly in the right

Christine tells
me we did pretty well,

but we didn't quite nail it.

We're still missing most
of the phosphorus we need.

Luckily, she knows
where to get some,

thanks to a discovery
by a 17th-century alchemist

named Hennig Brandt.

Brandt was looking
for precious gold

and he thought he might find it
in a bodily fluid

that looks golden indeed.

All right.

So we gotta get some...
some urine

and we can, we can get
phosphorus from it.

Actually, you're going
to provide a urine sample

for us to study.

Okay, anything for science.

Turns out the amount
of phosphorus

in my sample is microscopic.

We're going to need a lot more,
so back to the stable.

Centuries ago, Hennig Brandt
had to collect gallons of urine

for his experiment.


I didn't think
you had it in you.

Very funny.

It was a lot of work, frankly.

The next step
requires a concentrated sludge,

which is urine
minus most of the water.

Brandt's early process
caused the phosphorus

to rise as a vapor,

which Christine directs
safely into water

because phosphorus is
dangerously reactive in the air.

While that's underway,

it's time to get the lowdown
on the stuff we bought.

Starting with...


Six protons, six electrons
in two shells.

Its pure forms include graphite,
diamond, buckyballs,

nanotubes and graphene.

You mean charcoal?

Well, we bought charcoal
to represent carbon

because it's made up
of mostly carbon.

Carbon in its elemental form
looks like this graphite here,

like you'd find on the inside
of a pencil.

What charcoal is mostly is just
leftover, say, burnt wood.

When wood burns,
what's eventually left over

looks an awful lot like
this charcoal, or this carbon.

And the stuff in charcoal
happens to be the foundation

of all life on Earth.

And for good reason.

Carbon is the backbone
of living things

because since it can bond
to itself,

it can form these long chains
of molecules.

Long chains can
form because every carbon atom

needs four electrons
to fill its outer shell,

which means it's eager to bond
with up to four others,

even carbon atoms.

Virtually all long molecules
in the body

are built around carbon.

Your body's about 18% carbon,

which for you
would be 33.3 pounds.

Which is equivalent to

about two-and-a-half bags
of charcoal here.

All right, so next
we have nitrogen.

We do.

For this you bought fertilizer.

Just, so fertilizer is made up

of a very large
percentage of nitrogen

because plants actually
use nitrogen as food.

So how much actual nitrogen
is in a guy like me?

So your body's about
three percent nitrogen,

so in your case
that's 5.6 pounds.

Okay, hydrogen and oxygen.

You have these tiles
stacked side by side.

Hydrogen and oxygen.

H2O in water.

A twofer!

Hydrogen and oxygen can actually
be separated from water

using a little bit
of electricity.

Electric current
breaks up the water molecule.

The result is these tiny bubbles
of hydrogen gas.

Turns out they're really
quite volatile.


What the electric
current accomplished

by separating water
into hydrogen and oxygen

a simple flame
put back together again.

Now notice what you
see on here, it's a little cloudy, right?

That little foggy spot
on the test tube is brand new water

made just now by burning
hydrogen and oxygen.

Hydrogen is the lightest atom
in the universe.

So even though there are more
hydrogen atoms in me

than any other kind, it adds up
to only about 18 pounds.

Next, oxygen, also in water.

Of course, I know how much fire
likes pure oxygen.

So why don't you go ahead and
light this twig here on fire.

When you see it starting to
glow, go ahead and blow it out.


You have created fire!

Okay, so how much oxygen
is in me?

In a person's body,
there's 65% oxygen.

Actually, in your body
would equate to 120 pounds.

That makes it sound like

I'm a Macy's Thanksgiving
balloon or something.

But as Christine
has already demonstrated,

it's not in me as a gas,
it's in all that water.

And this brings us to P.

I mean, of course,
P as in phosphorus.

Hot phosphorus vapor
when cooled in water turns into a solid.


We've actually condensed it here
as a nice chunky, white solid.

Phosphorus is actually involved

in something really
important called ATP,

which is the molecule that
all cells use for energy.

Altogether, phosphorus
makes up about one percent

of my six-foot-two-inch body.

Phosphorus was
the first element isolated

from a living creature.

And it must have surprised

Exposed to air, it glows,

creating what he described
as "cold fire."

This chemical glow is what we
mean today by phosphorescence.

And when burned in oxygen,

it generates a spectacular
pulsing display

called a phosphorus sun.

No wonder it's used to provide
energy in our bodies.

And to think where it came from.

There's just one thing left
on our CHNOPPING list: sulfur.

I don't get it.

What does a tire
have to do with sulfur?

So there's a very small fraction
of sulfur in this tire,

and as it turns out,

there's the same amount
of sulfur in this one tire

as there is
in a 185-pound David.

Which is about how much?

Which is about half a pound.

Altogether, just
those six CHNOPS elements

make up 97%
of the weight of my body.

But what about
the other three percent?

And so whatever is left over
in those different beings

must be what differentiates
one from the next.

Just, there's what's called
the trace elements.

And the person that would be
better to talk to about those

might be someone
that's interested

in maybe sports medicine
or professional athletes.

Let's see, who could tell us

about sports,
athletes and elements?

Who could tell us?

Hey, are you Lindsay?

Yeah, I'm Lindsay.


Nice to meet you, David.

Welcome to the Gatorade
Sports Science Institute.

Gatorade Sports
Science Institute.

I know you guys are involved
with elements in the body

and athlete performance.

I actually am very concerned
with these things too.

In fact, every morning,
I take supplements.

I use organic elements,

I make my own.

Um, calcium, very important.

Sometimes I...

Sometimes I'll mix it up,
get a little chalk.

It might look like soap to you,

but it's a fine source
of potassium.




I like to think of this as
an excellent source of sodium.

And this is it every morning.

You know, it doesn't
taste fantastic,

but wow, is it good for me!

Am I going about this
the right way?

Actually, David, there's a
better way to get your elements,

such as calcium, iron,

in your daily food intake.

But this is organic free-range!

I'm curious to know how
my body uses those trace elements.

But first, a battery of tests

to determine what kind
of shape I'm in.

Once I've been poked...

Go ahead and take all
of your clothes off.



David, I said all your clothes.


and scanned...

And by the way,
in the real world,

this costs some serious money...

she puts me on a treadmill
to measure my oxygen use,

which could be impaired
if I have an iron deficiency.

Okay, and start.

We'll get to a nice comfy
walking pace.

15 seconds, we're going
to increase the speed.

Okay, David, what's your
rating of perceived exertion?

Keep pushing.

Okay, David, how do you
feel at this stage?


Where you at now?

He's at an 18, okay.

Ten more seconds,
hard as you can.

You can do it.

Got any more left?

Okay, okay,
go ahead and stretch,

go ahead and grab
onto the railing.

That's good, that's good.

Next, a sweat test.


All the way down, good.
All the way down, good.

Lock out at the top.

This is how OSHA
violations happen.

You know, if you play
this video in opposite way,

it will look like
I'm really running.

Thank you, sir.

It's been a pleasure.

Go train somebody else.

We're just getting warmed up.

he wasn't joking.

Now they're ready to start
the actual test.

These patches
will collect my sweat,

which in turn will tell Lindsay

how much of the trace elements
I'm losing from my body.

I feel like an old tire.

Here we go, ready, go!

Shouldn't you have a mower
attachment, at least?

Come on, drive it, let's go.

Come on, stay lower.

Use your butt, use your gluts.

Finish it, finish it!

All the way down,
all the way up.

Like that?

There you go.

A little higher, a little
higher, let's go.

I'm going to start calling you
names in a minute.

Let's go.

My God.

Keep going, keep going...
that was two.

Third-grade girls can get ten.

Let's go, keep going.

Excellent job.

Yeah, great job.

I have sweaty pads.

That's right.

Come and get 'em!

So the purpose
of all this was to measure

what electrolytes
and salts and stuff

were leaking out of my sweat,

And why exactly do we care?

Why do you care in the
athletes you train here?

What we want to prevent
is athletes cramping,

affecting their performance,

not only in practices
but also in games.

So you could be properly
hydrated and still get cramps.


Well, thanks for the education

and thanks
for the workout, Coach.

You got it, anytime, Dave.

And now for the results.


Plenty of calcium in me.

So you have
nice, strong bones.

So that means that my morning
ritual of consuming calcium

seems to be working.

It is working, however,
I would suggest dairy products

to get your calcium
instead of seashells.

Not so good.

For your age
and compared to other males,

you're in about
the 30th percentile.

That's low.

It's low.

It's below average.

This could
mean one of two things.

Either I might have
an iron deficiency...

so my blood isn't carrying
enough oxygen...

or I'm really out of shape.

And my blood test showed
I'm not iron deficient, so...

Well, what about
the other elements?

What do they do?


Zinc is important
for energy metabolism.


Potassium is an important part

of nervous system function.


Energy metabolism.

And finally, what about sodium?

So sodium is important
for nervous system function.

That's why we did that test
on you today.

Luckily, my
test results were normal.

I may have been sweating a lot
out on that field,

but I sweat like a champ.

In total, the human body uses
more than 25 elements

in ways and quantities
that are unique to us.

Not every living thing
does it the same way.

Take oxygen.

We love the stuff,
can't live without it.

But it wasn't always this way.

When life began, conditions
were very different on earth.

To begin with,
there was no oxygen in the air.

To learn what put
the "O" in our at-MO-sphere,

I've traveled
to Yellowstone National Park.

David Ward has spent
his professional life

studying the earth's
most ancient organisms.

So, Dave, you're
a microbe expert, I hear.

I am.

I am a microbial biologist.

I study microorganisms.

And, I'm particularly
interested in how they evolved.

Well, when you say
the earliest ones,

how old are we talking about?

We're talking three,
four billion years ago.

Yellowstone sits
atop the largest volcanic system

in North America.

That unusual geology creates
hot, poisonous pools

that Ward sees as a window
into the past.

You've installed a hot tub here.

The park permits
Ward to collect samples

from these protected

So this is you.

This is your office?


Now, you are not
actually allowed

to be inside the rocks there.

You have to have special...
a sampling permit.

You stay here,
and I'll go on across.

Let me know if you need a bottle
of water or something!

What is that gizmo
you have there?

This is a thermistor,
takes temperature.

We call that a thermometer.

You know, scientists have
to have fancy words for things.

Scientists think that in order

to get the energy
they needed to live,

some of the earliest
forms of life

required extremely hot water

mixed with elements like
hydrogen, sulfur and iron.

But as the planet cooled,

another ancient microorganism
evolved and changed everything.

They are called cyanobacteria,

but we know them
as blue-green algae.

They found a way to get their
energy from light and water,

releasing oxygen as a by-product,
just like modern plants do.

The evolution of cyanobacteria
set the stage

for all the plant
and animal life that followed.

And in fact,
you can see that clearly here.

You can see this orange
to brown transition.


And, you know,
this is one set of species,

and then there's another,
and then finally this third.

Dave Ward offers to introduce me

to one of my oldest
living relatives

with the help of
an ordinary drinking straw.

And we'll
take a sample here.

This is the real high-tech part.

I use my high-tech soda straw.

Just take aim
and push the straw in,

and just immerse it
into the liquid nitrogen.

Wow, snap-frozen
for freshness?


The different colors

are actually different species
of microorganism.

Back at his lab,
Ward prepares the sample.

There we go.

Here in the layers,

we can see different species
living together

separated by hundreds of
millions of years of evolution.

The thin, greenish layer
on the top is cyanobacteria,

situated at the best spot

to find light, water
and carbon dioxide for growth.

And in the history of life,
it's the cyanobacteria and us

that truly came out on top.

Take a peek here, Dave.

As they spread
out of the volcanic pools

and colonized the planet,

these tiny organisms pumped out
more and more oxygen.

For a few hundred million years,

oxygen simply reacted with the
metals in the earth's crust,

and the planet slowly rusted.

But eventually the oxygen began
to build up in the atmosphere.

And those little bugs
are still hard at work today.

These little critters that
are making half of the oxygen

that all of the things requiring
oxygen breathe today.

So they're still at work
making all of this oxygen.

These microbes
changed the face of an entire planet.

But where did
the elements of life,

and all the other elements,
come from in the first place?

Let's start at the very
beginning, with hydrogen.

One proton and one electron.

Around 90% of all the atoms
in the universe are hydrogen,

and they were all made
by the Big Bang

more than 13 billion years ago.

But where did things go
from there?

The answer is in the stars,
like our own sun,

a seething cauldron of hot gas

constantly turning
hydrogen atoms


It's a process called fusion.

And now scientists

at the National Ignition
Facility in California

are actually trying to recreate
that solar process

here on earth.

If they can make it practical...
And that's a big "if"...

they could unlock a new source
of limitless, clean energy.

So the world is
going to be using more energy.

Ed Moses is a
physicist who's leading the effort.

And his raw material
is hydrogen,

the smallest and the oldest
element in the universe.

Around 30
seconds after the Big Bang,

all that hydrogen appeared.

From the Big Bang?

From the Big Bang.

It sort of has an infinite life.

So we, when we, you know,
drink a glass of water,

are sampling the Big Bang.

Fusion forces two hydrogen atoms

to merge into a single
helium atom.

Pound for pound,

it's the most energetic reaction
in the cosmos.

And that's what his facility
would like to reproduce.

We crash them together,
and what happens is

we turn mass into energy,
just like Einstein told us.

To do this, Ed's team focuses

192 of the world's
most powerful laser beams

onto a bb-sized capsule
containing hydrogen atoms.

This fuses them
into helium atoms

and releases a 100-million-
degree pulse of energy.

The goal is to create
a sustained fusion reaction,

but right now it lasts only
a billionth of a second.

Stars create helium throughout
their long lives,

but in their old age,

they run low on hydrogen
and begin to fuse helium,

creating larger
and larger elements.

And you'll start walking up
the periodic table,

making more and more elements.

First you made helium;

then you'll make lithium
and beryllium and boron.

And you can do this
all the way up to iron.

By the time it's fusing
iron, a star is in its death throes.

It begins to collapse,
and if it's massive enough,

that collapse leads
to a powerful explosion

called a supernova.

In that intense flash,

the supernova creates elements
heavier than iron,

launching them all
into the cosmos,

creating the raw materials
of planets and of life.

And now we're using
those raw materials

to shape our civilization,

with elements like silicon...

14 protons, 14 electrons,

the second most abundant element
in the earth's rocky crust.

A member of one of the smallest
neighborhoods on the table,

the semiconductors.

When most people
think of silicon,

they think of computer chips
and the information age.

But its most familiar form
is actually in this.

For more than 5,000 years,

silicon glass has brought light
and beauty to our lives.

Today, scientists
are re-engineering

this ancient material
atom by atom

here at Corning
in upstate New York.

You know, David,

this place looks and sounds
like a blacksmith shop,

but actually it's
a scientific laboratory.

They're fiddling around

with various combinations
of elements,

seeing what kind of glass
comes out. That's right, yeah.

They tell me it
all starts with ordinary sand,

which is made of a combination
of silicon and oxygen.

But sand is opaque, isn't it?

It turns out it's much more
glasslike than I thought.

Under magnification,
sand looks like little tiny glass jewels

that are essentially

So the light's
coming from underneath

these grains of sand and
shining right through them?

Yep, and you know, it shows
that it's transparent.

That is so weird.

Melting sand
and then allowing it to cool

begins to turn it into glass.

Feels like thick, heavy vinyl.

Glass is surprisingly strong.

It can withstand a lot
of crushing force.

But it's also very brittle.

Is there any way to get
around that weakness?

What the scientists
do is they can tailor the glass

by adding other things
other than the sand

to engineer the properties
they want to into the glass.

Should I worry that my gloves
are on fire?

Changing the
5,000-year-old recipe for glass

has led to a new form they call
Gorilla Glass,

and you can probably guess
why they named it that.

Something that we call
a drop test.

With the glass,
is in a frame,

like we have a piece
of Gorilla Glass in this.

And the ball is dropped

from a height of one meter.

How thick is this piece
of glass?

This is 0.7 millimeters.

Not even a millimeter?

Not even a millimeter thick.

We're going to drop
four pounds on that?

That's right.

David, this is our hail gun.

It shoots a ball of ice
at 60 to 70 miles an hour.

Ready, aim, hail!

So this is a sample
of our special glass.

This is plastic, dude.

I can make a paper
airplane out of this.

Yeah, yeah.

It didn't break.

My gosh, it's going
to fold it in half.

a lot of bend to it.

Ready, aim, fire!

The secret behind
these weirdly durable forms of glass

is engineering
on the atomic scale.


Clearly it worked.

The 70-mile-an-hour
golf-ball-sized hail

did absolutely nothing to it.

The glassmakers have learned
how to precisely place

minute amounts of metal atoms...

like sodium, potassium,
and aluminum...

among the silicon atoms.

The result is hard yet flexible,
and scratch resistant.


But is it really glass?

You maintain that this is
not, in fact, plastic,

that this is actually
glass. Mm-yup.

But yet very strong,
within reason.

There is no such thing
as an unbreakable glass.

It is a glass...

It is a glass...

So there are limits.

These days we need
strong glass for lenses, fiber optics

and screens of all sizes.

Hey, I'm on TV!

But silicon's work
is not yet done.

Because underneath the glass,
there's a lot more silicon

in the guts
of all those electronics.

Silicon is the standard bearer
of the semiconductors,

materials that change
from free-flowing conductors

to nonflowing insulators

when we simply zap them
with an electric current.

Switches made out
of semiconductors

made computers possible.

But lately, when it comes
to high tech,

there's a new family
on the block:

the rare earths.

15 elements located
near the bottom of the table.

And in my job as
a technology writer,

there's one rare earth
that interests me

more than any other:


It's the key ingredient in the
world's strongest magnets.

They're critical to computers,
cell phones,

hybrid cars, wind turbines,
even tiny earbuds.

Without neodymium, we'd be sunk.

So that raises a question:

if they're in everything,

how come they're called
"rare" earths?

The best place to find out
is at the source.

John Burba is the chief
technology officer at Molycorp.

He's overseeing
a billion-dollar operation

to bring this 50-year-old mine
into the 21st century.

So how many rare earth mines
like this are there

in the United States?


This is it?

This is it.

One mine in the United States,

and John tells me it's not even
fully operational yet.


Where do rare earth minerals
come from in the world?

The majority of it
comes from China.

What kind of majority?

Like 98%.

98% of these minerals
come from China?


Then he breaks the news

that the Chinese government
has been limiting the export

of these strategically
important elements.

Seems like the fate
of the free world

could be riding on these rocks.

I'd better get some of my own
while the gettin' is good.

But look for stuff like this.

We'll find out how good
a geologist you are.

This reddish stuff?


This is a hunk
of... what?

Barite, barium sulfate,

it's got some monazite in it.

They are naturally
occurring crystals

that contain the elements.

So can I get a few more
of these?

Yeah, just look
for stuff that's similar.

You know what, John?

I like these two a lot.

I can't decide.

It's an either/ "ore" situation.

So how can I find out which
elements are in this hunk?

Molycorp's facility
is still under construction.

So to find out
what's in my rocks,

he suggests I take them
to the world's

premier rare earth research lab
in Ames, Iowa.

We'll be there soon.

I'm dying to know what
I've got my hands on.

A pinch of praseodymium,

A whole pound of holmium?

A thimbleful of thulium?

Or, dare I hope,
magnet-making neodymium?

If anyone can extract
all the precious neodymium

from my rocks, it's these guys.

David, I've been expecting you.

Good to see you.

David Pogue, how are you?

Yes, sir, yes, sir.

I see you brought
the ore with you.

I brought this all the way
from California.

All the way, all right!

I carried it by hand.

Because, you know,
it's rare earth...

It's rare earth.

...ore, and I didn't want
anything to happen.

I didn't check it,
I didn't put it in the overhead.

I think I've got
some beautiful samples.


There's this mine in California,

the largest one
in the United States.

Look at the size of this one.

I think this one's my
favorite. Yeah.

I thought if we
brought it here to Ames Lab,

I thought you could,

do a little chemical analysis
on it and tell me...

We certainly can.

We'll take your
favorite one and...

Watch out with the hammer.

What are you...?

There we go, that's
a good piece right there.

That's all we're going to need
for the chemical analysis,

so the rest of this
we'll just...

Yeah, but...

throw it right here
in the trash.

But that's, that's rare...


The truth is,
rare earths are not rare.

They're just notoriously hard
to separate.

The problem is,
at an atomic level,

the rare earth elements
all look weirdly alike.

Moving from element to element

along a row
of the periodic table

adds a proton to the nucleus and
an electron to the outer shell.

But in the rare earths,

the new electron disappears
into an unfilled inner shell.

The result?

15 atoms that all have identical
outer electron shells,

making them virtually
indistinguishable chemically.

But what about my rocks?

Okay, David, the ore
that you brought us,

the rocks that look like this,

we analyzed those,
and this is what we found.

We found major components

of cerium, lanthanum
and praseodymium.

But no neodymium.

Apparently, my rocks
are neo free.

But there was some good news.

The ore I brought in contained
a whopping 20% rare earth oxide.

Molycorp may soon be able

to take a big bite out
of China's near monopoly.

Before I head out, though,

there's one more lab
I'm determined to visit.

So David, would you be
interested in seeing

a rare earth magnet?

Paul is one of
the lab's top magnet guys.

This is a rare earth magnet.

This is actually neodymium,
iron and boron.

This is about 150 grams

of the world's highest
purity neodymium.

magnets are a bit of a misnomer.

They're really iron magnets
with a pinch of neodymium added

like a powerful spice
to make them stronger,

plus a few boron atoms to help
hold everything in place.

You grow these?

You don't dig these out
of the ore somehow?

No, no, no,
these don't exist in nature.

These are things that we have
to combine and cook

in the same way
that huevos rancheros

doesn't exist in nature.

It has to be put together.

Paul's lab is
like a dieter's kitchen,

satisfying a hunger
for powerful magnetic crystals

while reducing the amount of
neodymium needed in the recipe.

And he's just about to whip up
a fresh batch.

The main ingredient
is ordinary iron.

Iron makes magnets...

There you go!

...but adding neodymium
makes magnets on steroids.

Here's how you make a magnet.

First, all the solid ingredients

are sealed into a quartz tube
to be melted together.


After some time in the furnace,

tiny magnetic crystals have
formed in the melted iron.

2,000 degree...
my gosh!

It's like threading a needle!

The next step is to separate
the solids from the liquid.

One, two, three,
dump it in, slam the lid.

They put the centrifuge
on the floor for safety

in case anything goes wrong
with the super-hot vial.

We turn it off.

That lets you open it up.

And we can take it out.

We have single crystals
of the neodymium iron boron

separated from the extra liquid,

which the centrifuge separated
with the ten to 100 G's.

The result of all
this cooking and spinning?

A powerful magnet that uses
less neodymium, we hope.

It sounds like you're saying

you're trying to use as little
of the rare earth as possible.



'Cause I thought rare earths
aren't really that rare.

The rare earths are not rare,
but they're hard to separate.

And that's part of the expense.

Even with Paul's
help, it looks like rare earths

are going to remain in short
supply, at least for now.

Partly because scientists
continue to find

surprising new ways
to use these strange metals.

Like marine biologist and
conservationist Patrick Rice.

If he has anything to say
about it,

rare earths may be coming soon
to a fish hook near you.

Is this your little
kiddie pool

where you bring
the children to swim?

This is our little tank here
where we have, um,

a couple little bonnet
head sharks

and a little nurse shark
in here.

Rice was searching
for the next great shark repellent

when he made
an accidental discovery

that looks like it'll be good
news for both man and fish.

We had sharks
in a tank like this,

and a pump broke
on one of our tanks,

and so we were playing
with these magnets

and we put the magnets
down by the tank

to go fix the pump,

and when we put the magnet by
the tank, the sharks took off.

the sharks inside the tank

sensed the presence of magnets
outside the tank,

and when they did,
they voted with their fins.

Patrick offers to demonstrate
the weird repulsive effect.

He hands me a case
of super-strong magnets.

So this is full of actual
regular, old refrigerator...

Yeah, more than
refrigerator magnets.

That's right, that's right.

And you're saying that this
will somehow repel the sharks?

Okay, here comes a little guy.

That's a little nurse shark,
it might work for him.

Tell me when he gets over here.

All right, three, two, one.

My gosh, it's like you
dropped that thing on his head.

Yeah, you saw it?

Yeah, he's like,
dun dun dun, wow!

He whipped out of there.

Just, exactly.

The shark can't see the magnet,

but it obviously feels
the effect.

And it's not happy.

One, two, three, now.

Boom, you got him.

Yeah, you got him.

That's crazy.
Isn't it amazing?

Patrick thought he
could somehow use this effect

to save sharks from being
inadvertently caught

by commercial fishermen.

But there was, so to speak,
a catch.

We put the magnet right above
the hook on the line.

And what was happening was
the hooks were swinging around

and getting caught
on the magnets.

That would happen.

So it wasn't catching
any sharks,

but it wasn't catching
anything else either.

But he
wasn't willing to give up.

He decided he needed to find
the weakest possible magnet

that would still affect sharks.

The first step was to create
a baseline for comparison

by exposing sharks
to nonmagnetic materials.

He offers to recreate
his experiment.

You know, I don't have
insurance for this.

Be careful.
It might be slippery.

You're warning me
about the slipperiness?

Dude, there's
three sharks in here!

No, but they're nice.

Okay, I just want to say, for
the record, that I'm standing

in a tank full of sharks.

That's correct.

The Kiddie Pool.

Capture a shark.

Dude, you just caught
a shark with your bare hands!

Then flip
the shark upside down,

which induces a trance state
called tonic immobility.

Once the shark is calm,

we test its reaction

to a piece of ordinary,
nonmagnetic lead.

Would you like me to just conk
her on the head with this?

Cover up her eyes.

So it's not a visual thing.

Using a shield to make
sure that the shark can't see the metal,

I bring it close.

No reaction.

None at all.

As expected.

Next, a nonmagnetic
piece of samarium,

a rare earth element.

The expectation was that
because it's nonmagnetic,

there would be no reaction.


She didn't like that at all.

This is like
kryptonite for sharks!

Yes, it is.

Wow, that's amazing.

It just woke her up
and drove her crazy.


So the idea is you could make
what out of this stuff?

Well, the idea is that
it's not magnetic,

so we could potentially
incorporate it

into a fishing hook.

And then you got something
that repels sharks

but doesn't have
the magnetic properties,

so it won't tangle the gear
and stuff like that.

The discovery
that nonmagnetic rare earths

have a repellent effect
on sharks was a complete fluke.

And it works with other
rare earth metals as well.

But why?

What do sharks have against
these particular elements?

We believe it's creating
a little electric shock.

A little electric shock?

Yeah, yeah.

A shark shock.

A shark shocker.

Patrick demonstrates
using a beaker of seawater,

a piece of samarium, a voltmeter
and an actual shark fin.

Bum bum,
bum bum, bum bum, bum bum...

When he submerges the samarium

and the shark fin
in the seawater,

an electric current flows.


My God.

That's almost a D-size battery.

Did we just make,
in effect, a battery?


As a group, the rare earths

give up their outer electrons
very easily.

In the salt water,

samarium atoms break free
of the metal disk

and give up one or more
of their outer electrons.

The atoms become
positively charged

and are attracted
to the shark fin,

which, like many
biological materials,

has a slight negative charge.

The movement
of the charged atoms

creates an electric current.

Wow, that's some real juice
flowing in there.

Just like in a battery.

It's a complete closed circuit,

and the voltmeter's
measuring that.

That's pretty amazing.

But is the effect
actually strong enough

to put a shark off its meal?

So we've just done
our little test...

There's one final
experiment we can run to find out.

What we're going to do now...


Thank you.

You're welcome.

That was just for
the blooper reel.

We like to get some material...

As I was saying,

there's one final experiment
we can run to find out.

What we're going to do here is

a little experiment
we've never done before.

You haven't done this before?

We haven't done this before.

You waited until there was
a national TV camera rolling?

There's a nine-foot
lemon shark in this lagoon,

and it's lunchtime.

Now for the test.

We're going to suspend
two identical pieces of tuna.

One will hang below a piece
of lead...

that's our control...

the other under a piece
of samarium.

You go ahead and
put it out there.



Lower her down.

If the test is successful,

the shark should avoid
the samarium-tainted meal,

but not the food near the lead.

Here she comes.

didn't like it at all.

She was aiming right at it
and she was like!

That was an
excellent response.

Notice the other fish... it
doesn't have any effect on them.

Okay, wait a minute,
now she's going for the lead.

So there's the control.

And she loves the lead one!

No problem on the
control, so that's awesome.

Since making
this remarkable discovery,

Patrick has experimented
with designs

for shark-repelling
fishing hooks,

and he's seen some
promising results.

The last experiment we did,
we put out 46,000 hooks

and we reduced
shark by-catch by 27%.

Get your fresh chum here!

Shark zapping
is just the latest entry

in the growing list of curious
rare earth abilities.

But perhaps the real shocker
is that these 15 elements

were so long misunderstood,

their identities masked by their
identical outer electron shells.

But those aren't the only atoms
hiding from view.

Scientists now know
that most elements

come in more than one version.

The different versions
are called isotopes.

Consider carbon,
the backbone of life.

It has three natural isotopes,
or versions.

Each has six protons
and six electrons...

that's what makes
them all carbon.

The difference between them is

the number of neutrons
in the nucleus.

Neutrons are electrically
neutral particles

that act as glue
to hold atoms together.

What we think of as normal
carbon is called carbon-12,

six protons plus six neutrons.

But about one percent of carbon
atoms have an extra neutron,

giving them seven.

They're called carbon-13.

And about one in a million
have eight neutrons...

that's carbon-14.

And that rare version of carbon

has proven to be a crucial tool
for unlocking the past.

Several times a year,
scientist Scott Stine travels

to the shores of Mono Lake
near Yosemite National Park.

So this, then, is Mono Lake.

Mono Lake, yeah.

Just here at the foot
of the Sierra Nevada.

He's studying the long
history of droughts in California,

trying to determine
how frequently they occur

and how long they last.

Over the millennia, the water
level has risen and fallen

as the area has cycled between
wet periods and dry times.

So that sandy area
should be the level?

During times
when the climate was dry,

Mono Lake dropped down,
exposed the shore lands

and allowed trees
and shrubs to grow.

When the dry periods
ended and the water level rose,

the trees drowned,
marking the end of the droughts.

Since then, the remains
of those trees

have been well-preserved
by the arid climate.

These droughts were
long persistent.

To determine how
long ago these droughts occurred,

Scott is using carbon-14
to date the trees.

Unlike the other natural
isotopes of carbon,

carbon-14 is unstable.

Over time, its atoms begin
to deteriorate.

One of its neutrons
turns into a proton

and spits out an electron.

Now with seven protons
instead of six,

it's turned into nitrogen.

That process is called
radioactive decay,

and scientists know exactly
how long it will take

for half of any amount
of carbon-14 to decay away.

Scientists call that time
its half-life.

Living things
constantly replenish

the carbon in their bodies...

animals from food,

plants from the atmosphere.

But after death,
that process stops.

The amount of carbon-12 stays
the same,

but the carbon-14 decays away
at a constant rate,

making carbon-14
a ticking atomic clock.

To know how long ago
this ancient tree died,

we just need to count the carbon
atoms in a small sample.

Piece of cake!

If you're this guy.

Now, these are fragments
of the tree stumps at Mono Lake,

and I understand that you are
the master of carbon dating.

Physicist Tom Brown
works in the carbon-dating program

at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory.

In fact, if I'm not mistaken,

carbon dating
actually preexisted

before Internet dating.

Very much.

Carbon-14 can be used to
date samples up to 40,000 years old.

It's been used to find the ages
of many Egyptian mummies

and other ancient artifacts.

So how does wood fare
with carbon dating?

Intact wood is very good
material to date.

It retains the carbon
from when that material died

and we're able to extract
and purify it

and get a really good material
for dating.

Tom needs only
a small amount of wood.

Even this tiny sample
is overkill.

A lab technician cleans it
and reduces it to a fine powder.

Man, this huge thing?

This is your
Carbon-Dater-Matic 3000?

The actual counting
of the atoms takes place here,

in the carbon-dating

I see you bought
the camping version.

We have our one milligram
of carbon from the woodchip sample

basically in that hole.

In that tiny little hole?

That's where the one
milligram of carbon is

from that sample.

Not a lot of wood chips.

We put about 64 of these holders
in one of these wheels.

The accelerator applies

a powerful electric charge
to the atoms...

basically lightning...

giving them the speed
and energy they need

to hit a detector
with enough force to be counted.

The ratio of the carbon-14 ions

to the amount of carbon-12
in the sample

tells us how old the sample is.

The fewer the carbon-14s,
the older it is?


With his accelerator,

Tom calculates that our tree
died about 150 years ago.

That must have been when
California's last drought ended,

a key piece of information

for understanding
the region's climate cycles.

Carbon-14 has helped open up
deep insights into the past,

but it's just one of hundreds
of radioactive isotopes...

that is, elements that decay.

In fact, at the bottom
of the periodic table,

beginning with number 84,

all of the elements and their
isotopes are radioactive,

including the element that
stands for both the promise

and the peril of radioactivity:


92 protons, 92 electrons
and 146 neutrons.

Before the nuclear age,

uranium was thought to be
the end of the periodic table.

But in the last 70 years,

scientists have
left nature behind

and created 26 new elements.

The age of man-made atoms

began in the first half
of the 20th century,

when researchers began
bombarding elements

with neutrons.

Sometimes the neutron
is simply absorbed,

creating a new isotope.

But sometimes the nucleus
can't take the punishment.

It becomes unstable and splits
into two smaller atoms

in a powerful reaction
called fission

that releases
large amounts of energy.

To learn more,
I've come to the Nuclear Museum

in Albuquerque, New Mexico...

this is a mad science project.

...where atomic scientist
Matt Dennis

has offered to demonstrate
how a nuclear reactor works.

You guys make a lot of jokes
about "Gone Fission?"

I actually have an atomic shirt

that says something
to that effect, so yes.

I knew that! I knew that!

Okay, now, to the naked eye,

this looks exactly
like a nuclear reactor.

The similarities are
the mousetraps are uranium atoms

and the white ping-pong balls
are neutrons,

which you use one to start
a chain reaction.

In a reactor, one
neutron splits a uranium atom,

which releases energy
and two or three more neutrons,

which in turn split more atoms,

releasing more neutrons
and so on,

causing a chain reaction.

So you get more
and more neutrons,

and thus the chain reaction
keeps going.

All right,
ladies and jelly-spoons

here goes the orange
ping-pong ball.

This evening's role, you'll be
portraying the neutron.

All right,
I just drop it in here?

Any old place?

Just drop it in right there,
we'll start the chain reaction.

Incoming neutron!

I'm sorry, Matt,
the camera wasn't rolling.

Can you set that up again?

From a single
neutron, an escalating response.

Our mousetrap reactor
doesn't have many atoms,

so the reaction dies quickly.

But pack enough fissionable
uranium atoms

closely enough together

and the whole thing can get
out of hand pretty fast.

And sometimes that's the point.

This museum has the world's
largest public collection

of artifacts that chronicle
the dark side of nuclear energy.

And so
that's a Trident Z-3 up there.

That's huge.

You guys are just
surrounded by bombs.

I feel like a kid
in a death store.

In 1945, the U.S.
developed two atomic weapons.

Both were used against Japan.

The first was fueled by
an isotope called uranium-235.

That bomb was called Little Boy.

This is the Little Boy bomb.

This is the...

This is it?

I guess I shouldn't
bump it then?

Well, it's a current...
concurrent copy.

This is just like it.

Inside this big case
was a gun barrel

and high explosives on the ends

to push the two pieces
of enriched uranium together

at supersonic speed.

The military made
only one uranium bomb,

because separating rare U-235
from the more common U-238,

which doesn't work
in fission reactions,

is a very difficult process.

So for the second bomb,
called Fat Man,

they used an entirely
different element:


94 protons, 94 electrons,
and 150 neutrons.

Plutonium was the first
man-made element.

It was identified in 1940
by chemist Glenn Seaborg,

when he bombarded uranium atoms
with protons and neutrons

until some of them stuck.

Over his long career,
Seaborg went on

to isolate or create
nine more man-made elements,

including Americium, which is in minute quantities
including Americium, which is in minute quantities

in the smoke alarms
in our homes.

He pushed the end
of the periodic table

all the way to element 106,

which is called Seaborgium
in his honor.

I started out,
here at the laboratory

using these counters
quite frequently...

Ken Moody is a
chemist at Lawrence Livermore Lab.

But he developed a love
of big fat juicy atoms

as a graduate student
in Seaborg's lab in the 1970s.

Afterwards, his first job was
analyzing radioactive debris

produced by underground
nuclear weapon tests.

And it was our job
to go pick samples

and tell the physicists
how well this device had worked.

I think I'm
smart enough to know

that those fragments
would probably be radioactive.


Would they not be dangerous?

Well, we didn't carry 'em
around in our pockets.

Since the end of the cold war,

Ken's goal has been to expand
the periodic table.

He's teamed up
with a Russian lab,

and together they've succeeded

in creating six new elements
in this cyclotron.

But there's a hitch.

They've only made
a few atoms of each,

and they're all so unstable,

they decay away almost as soon
as they come into existence.

With all due respect,

none of the six elements
that you've discovered

are actually in the world
right now.

That's correct.

So do they count?

Doesn't sound like much,
but for a chemist,

a ten-second activity

actually allows you
to do something with it,

but it isn't enough that you can
put it in a bottle

and put it on the mantelpiece
and admire it the next day.

Still, Ken has
high hopes for the future.

He believes that somewhere

beyond today's
largest man-made elements,

scientists will find an island
of stability

on the periodic table

where some super-large atoms
will be both stable and useful,

perhaps satisfying the needs
of our future civilization.

It's amazing to think

that something as complex
as the physical universe

can be put on a single chart.

And from about
90 basic elements,

man and nature have teamed up

to create the incredible variety
of stuff in our lives.

And the story is far from over.

As scientists continue to hunt
the secrets of the elements,

what new understanding
and technologies will follow

can only be imagined.

Do Alley.

It's coming on
the ground right here!

Shattering records and lives.

These poor people!

Like someone dropped a bomb.

Why do tornadoes form?

Can we predict them before they
strike, and save more lives?

It's a life and death situation.

This has never been done before.

We have a relatively
complete look

at the evolution of the tornado.

"Deadliest Tornadoes,"
next time onNOVA.

ThisNOVAprogram is available
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