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To unlock their secrets, David Pogue, technology columnist and lively host of NOVA's popular "Making Stuff" series, spins viewers through the world of weird, extreme chemistry: the strongest acids, the deadliest poisons, the universe's most abundant elements, and the rarest of the rare—substances cooked up in atom smashers that flicker into existence for only fractions of a second. Yet everything we know, the stars, the planets and life, itself, comes from about 90 basic building blocks,… …all right here, on this remarkable chart: the periodic table of the elements. And we're made, almost entirely, of just a handful of ingredients, including one that burns with secret fire inside us all. The sample, mixed with a lead oxide powder, goes into a furnace heated to 2,000 degrees. Using extreme heat, gold atoms are gradually coaxed away from the powdered rock. Turns out that an ounce per ton is pretty much optimal for the underground mine. The New York Mercantile Exchange is a vital hub in the global metals market, which is pretty good news for me. (Commodities Trader): Oh, this is an old, old business. It's so important that the rise and fall of copper prices provide a snapshot of the health of the entire world economy. Each atom gives up some of its electrons to create a kind of sea of these randomly moving charged particles.It's a story that begins with the Big Bang and eventually leads to us. Join me as I explore the basic building blocks of the universe… …to the least—manmade elements that last only fractions of a second; strange metals with repellant powers;… So, after all that pulverizing and crushing and weighing and firing, what we're left with is this? Eighteen hundred dollars times…720,000 bucks a truck! The surface mine produces less, about half an ounce per ton. This goes back to the 1800s, the late 1800s, where farmers were looking, actually, for money to plant their next year's crops. We use it for infrastructure; we use it for electronic goods. When times are bad, copper prices tumble, and when times are good, they soar. It's these free-flowing electrons that make metals conductive.
Like all elements, gold is an atom that gets its identity from tiny particles: positively charged protons in the nucleus, balanced by negatively charged electrons all around, plus neutrons, which have no charge at all. It's virtually indestructible, yet also soft and malleable.The number of protons is called the atomic number and it's the fundamental organizing principle of every table of the elements, including this one. They're filled with stats and figures that don't make any sense to the ordinary person. What matters about elements is that they are real physical substances with properties and things you can do with them. I have to say many of these elements look the way you would think—gold looks like gold, silver looks like silver—but not all of them.Theo makes the point by putting me in touch with the real deal. To make the entire table less abstract, he invites me to lay out the rest of his collection of pure elements. This is a visual representation of every single element that makes up this entire planet and everything on it. As we can clearly see, more than 70 percent of the elements on the table are metals, shiny, malleable materials that conduct electricity. Everything from here on over, including the bottom part, is all metals. And down the middle are these, kind of, halfway in between things, which include, for example, semiconductors, like silicon. The one I was looking at, in particular, was calcium. This is when Theo's collection starts to get really interesting, when he pairs the pure elements with their more familiar forms.If David's microscope is powerful enough, we should see regular rows of copper atoms with tin atoms packed in between. Well, thanks for my tour into the, to the unseen and to what used to be the pure, purely theoretical.I can't believe I can now put on my resume that I've seen atoms. This amazing ability to see atoms has opened up new worlds for scientists.