Mercury, the sweetest of the transition metals!
March 6, 2015 7:38 AM   Subscribe

Mercury is such a dense liquid that cannonballs float in it. Humans float on it too (you'll have to scroll down a bit for the picture), but it's probably not a good idea. If you just can't resist hopping in the mercury vat, elemental mercury is less likely to kill you than mercury compounds. It used to be sold as a laxative (officially branded Dr. Rush's Bilious Pills but colloquially known as "thunder clappers"); Lewis and Clark's campsites can sometimes be identified by the mercury they deposited along the way.
posted by Blue Jello Elf (39 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
No post about mercury is complete without Alexander Calder's Mercury Fountain (I thought it had been in an FPP, but all I found were a couple of comments referring to it). When I was a kid it seemed that mercury was everywhere; light switches (the ones incorporating mercury tilt switches were more expensive because they were more or less silent), barometers (and sphygmomanometers), thermometers, and, of course, toys. It seems strange that only Hg and Br are liquid at room temperature and atmospheric pressure.
posted by TedW at 8:27 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Could a human walk on Mercury?
posted by Oyéah at 8:29 AM on March 6, 2015


Lewis and Clark and their men marked their territory like dogs mark theirs. Mercury is neat stuff.
posted by 724A at 8:33 AM on March 6, 2015


Could a human walk on Mercury?

Possibly, as conditions in some places seem to be similar to the Moon.

But seriously, I doubt one could walk on a pool of the liquid metal element, as the pressure per square inch is much higher. If memory serves me correct, for the same reason one can float in the Great Salt Lake but not walk on it.
posted by Gelatin at 8:38 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


No more than you can walk on any dense fluid. It has a viscosity close to that of water, so it would be beyond slippery. You might float, but standing would be really hard.
posted by bonehead at 8:40 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Another use of mercury was to float the giant lenses in lighthouses. That meant that some lighthouse keepers lived in a tower with an open mercury bath on the top floor. No wonder some got a little kooky - it wasn't just the isolation.

OTOH, recent US and international efforts to lessen mercury in thermostats, switches, and other uses have led to tremendous reduction in the mercury that most of us are exposed to on a regular basis. And that's pretty clearly a win for brains everywhere!
posted by ldthomps at 8:44 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


Little Willie from his mirror
Sucked the mercury all off,
Thinking, in his childish error,
It would cure his whooping-cough.

At the funeral, Willie’s mother
Smartly said to Mrs. Brown,
”T was a chilly day for William
When the mercury went down.”
posted by lalochezia at 8:47 AM on March 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


My mother got it at the hospital she worked at and brought it home for me to play with. I took it to school and let others play too. It makes dimes super shiny. My doctor said it probably had no effect on my health; but I'm not so sure.
posted by JohnR at 8:47 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


It seems strange that only Hg and Br are liquid at room temperature and atmospheric pressure..

If you live in a poorly air-conditioned building somewhere hot, Gallium will liquify at "room temperature"....
posted by lalochezia at 8:51 AM on March 6, 2015


It seems strange that only Hg and Br are liquid at room temperature and atmospheric pressure.

Not really. In the grand scheme of things, "room temperature" and "atmospheric pressure" are totally arbitrary and very narrowly-defined values. There's a lot more to the universe than just the parts of Earth that are most comfortable to humans!
posted by Sys Rq at 8:52 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yes! The mercury fountain! I remember seeing that in Barcelona. The mercury is so bright, and the fountain itself is quite black. I wondered how they got the water on it to look so amazing, until I went read the placard next to it. It was in Spanish, but even to an English speaker, it was clear that this was a mercury fountain. Being in a sealed room helped drive the point home.
posted by Phredward at 8:55 AM on March 6, 2015


Whatever else you might do with mercury, don't take it on an airplane!

Not really. In the grand scheme of things, "room temperature" and "atmospheric pressure" are totally arbitrary and very narrowly-defined values. There's a lot more to the universe than just the parts of Earth that are most comfortable to humans!

I see your point, but to approach it from the other side, why do we exist at a point where only two (give or take a few if you consider gallium, cesium, and rubidium) are liquid, but there are plenty of gasses and solids?
posted by TedW at 8:59 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Mercury! Prescribed of course as a topical, injected, ingested and affumicated treatment for syphilis from the 16th to the early 20th century.

Mercuric nitrate was also used in the felting of fur to make felt hats: the hatters would inhale the resulting mercury vapour, hence the 19th - early 20th century "mad hatter" stereotype.

And of course, it lights your house!
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:59 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


So as Lewis and Clark’s men made their way across the continent and across Oregon, they were unknowingly depositing a trail of heavy metals along the way – a trail that historians and scientists have been able to detect and use to document almost their every movement, so to speak.

Man, I'm dense. Reading the FPP (which is awesome BTW), I was thinking that pills had been left behind amongst their litter at various points in their journey. After I RTFA, I realized what the leavings being analyzed were.

I had a high school chemistry teacher who reminisced fondly about how, back in the day, students would be allowed to just pass around a glob of mercury with their bare hands to demonstrate its properties, rather than the sealed test tube of mercury that we were handling. I don't think we were cheated.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:03 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Could a human walk on Mercury?

Double entendre aside, perhaps not walk, but you can sit on it.
posted by sidereal at 9:06 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Elemental mercury doesn't absorb terribly well through the skin or GI tract. The main danger from handling it is the vapor. Organomercury compounds, on the other hand, are much more absorbent and can be crazy toxic. See, for example, the case of Karen Wetterhahn, who spilled a small drop of dimethylmercury on the back of a gloved hand and was basically brain dead 10 months later.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:14 AM on March 6, 2015 [11 favorites]


Mercury figures in one of two hazmat incidents I caused in my elementary school days, in that my dentist, responding to my intense scientific curiosity and undeniable charm, gave me a whole baby food jar of gorgeous, heavy, weirdly magical mercury. I did a million experiments from my 30s-era science books, like Things A Boy Can Do With Electricity, floated nails, teeth, and a liver-spotted dudley-nosed fancy show mouse on it (she was not amused), but it all ended when I decided that I needed to take it to school to share the joy.

Long story short, and amusingly, this took place in the same classroom in which I would later have a terrifying incident with a travel-size bottle of mouthwash and my backside—the jar of mercury ended up rolling across 1979-maroon industrial carpet, preceded by approximately one billion little silver balls and a whole lotta trouble.

So the pod was evacuated (yeah, it's from that era), the men in yellow suits arrived, and suffice to say that I was not allowed to recover my property.

The new harvest gold carpet looked fabulous, though.
posted by sonascope at 9:14 AM on March 6, 2015 [18 favorites]


I see your point, but to approach it from the other side, why do we exist at a point where only two (give or take a few if you consider gallium, cesium, and rubidium) are liquid, but there are plenty of gasses and solids?

Because that temperature and pressure is particularly well-suited for the formation of living organisms?
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:21 AM on March 6, 2015


I heard people used to shine their band instruments by painting them with mercury.

I'm sort of surprised anyone survived the past, but, thinking about it, I guess they didn't.
posted by maxsparber at 9:23 AM on March 6, 2015 [11 favorites]


I can remember playing with mercury several times when thermometers broke on the bathroom floor. Such fun chasing the little balls around the grooves in the tile and making them break up and rejoin. I don't actually remember what we did with it eventually, since you can't really wipe it up, but I'm pretty sure it eventually went into the trash to poison a landfill somewhere.
posted by tavella at 9:27 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Used in Taoist alchemy to help confer immortality, though in fact it conferred early mortality.
posted by Segundus at 9:32 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


"You got one part of that wrong. This is not meth."
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:33 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


My first mercury memory is my mom breaking a thermometer in the kitchen and calling me in to show me how it can roll across the floor and glob up. Amazing!

A couple of kids in an adjacent town broke into an abandoned warehouse, found mercury, and took it home and stored it around their houses in open containers. Their entire houses had to be evacuated. Everything. They couldn't take their appliances, furniture, clothes, etc. Mercury vapor was on everything. One kid dipped a cigarette in it and smoked it to see what would happen. I think he died, but I can't find the story anywhere online.

My high school chemistry teacher told me when construction workers knocked down a wall to expand a wing in her old school, they found gallons of mercury that had settled into a low spot behind the wall. Mercury will slowly work its way through porous material like a cinder block or brick (or your skin).
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:34 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


The T-1000 Terminator was extremely badass as well.
posted by colie at 9:35 AM on March 6, 2015


There was also a great effect using mercury being blown around by a hair dryer in Dracula (1992).
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:38 AM on March 6, 2015


Mercury is also used to make "self-descratching" liquid mirror telescopes, a good bet for the design of a lunar telescope.
posted by alby at 9:43 AM on March 6, 2015


Our middle school science teacher brought some (I hope) elemental mercury in for us to play with. This was in 1992 - maybe dude hadn't gotten the memo yet.
posted by subdee at 9:54 AM on March 6, 2015


One kid dipped a cigarette in it and smoked it to see what would happen. I think he died, but I can't find the story anywhere online.


Did you grow up near Texarkana? I remember that story too; it was when I used to hang out in the blood gas lab at work where they had a mercury manometer that was watched very closely and the technician and I both agreed that the students weren't very bright.
posted by TedW at 9:57 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I wonder when the big switchover was? I know that in 81 or so when I was in middle school, the science wing supply room still had all those things that are highly discouraged these days -- a giant block of potassium sitting in oil in a glass vat, a screw-top jar filled with mercury, etc.
posted by tavella at 10:01 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


A couple of additional stories about the Texarkana incident: Time, NYT.
posted by TedW at 10:05 AM on March 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


Wow, yeah. Thanks, TedW.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:08 AM on March 6, 2015


I am sufficiently old that I remember playing with mercury in school. Never happen now, of course.

The use of mercury to float lighthouse lenses is one of the weird little factoids I've been able to throw out at cocktail parties over the last several years. It made perfect sense at the time, but it's now a bit of a problem for transferring those lighthouses to state or local ownership...
posted by suelac at 10:09 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am the poison-dripping dragon,
who is everywhere and can be cheaply had.
That upon which I rest, and that which rest upon me,
will be found within me by those who pursue their investigations in accordance with the rules of the Art.
My water and fire destroy and put together;
from my body you may extract the green lion and the red.
But if you do not have exact knowledge of me,
you will destroy your five senses with my fire.
By the philosophers I am named Mercurius.
My spouse is the gold;
I am the old dragon found everywhere on the globe of the earth,
father and mother, young and old, very strong and very weak,
death and resurrection, visible and invisible, hard and soft;
I descend into the Earth and ascend into the Heavens,
I am the highest and the lowest, the lightest and the heaviest.
I am dark and light.
Often the order of nature is reversed in me.
I am known yet do not exist at all.
I am the carbuncle of the sun, the most noble purified earth,
through which you may change copper, iron, tin and lead into gold.
A waxing poison comes from my nose,
having brought to death many people.
Therefore, with the art,
you have to separate the course from the fine,
if you don’t wan to delight in poverty.
I give you the power
of the male and the female,
even that of heaven and earth.
With bravery and broadness of understanding,
the mysteries of my art are to be done,
if you want to conquer me with the power of the fire.
From which many have suffered in their potential and work.
I am the egg of nature,
that only the wise man knows,
who by piety and modesty
let the microcosm arise out of me,
what is destined to people by the most high God,
but what is given only to a few,
while most long for it in vain:
that they do well to those in poverty from my treasury
and that their soul will not cling to the transitory gold.
I am called Mercurius by the Philosphers;
my mate is the philosophical gold;
I am the old dragon, present everywhere on earth,
father and mother, young man and old man,
very powerful and very weak,
death and rebirth, hard and soft;
I descend into the earth and ascend into heaven’
I am the highest and the lowest,
the heaviest and the lightest;
often the order of nature in color, number , weight and measure
is being reversed in me,
I contain the light of nature (lumen naturale);
I am the dark and the light,
I come forth from heaven and earth;
I am known but do not exist;
all colors radiate in me
and all metals by the sun’s rays.
I am the solar carbuncle,
the most refined, glorified earth,
by which you can change
copper, iron, tin and lead
into gold.

-- Theatrum Chemicum (1613)
posted by BigCalm at 10:12 AM on March 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


I remember taking a vial of this and trying to not let it run between your fingers. You would fail. I also remember sweeping mercury up aster I put a huge thermometer in a bunson burner flame.

I think I am fine.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:14 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


ProTip - if you do have to deal with small amounts of spilled mercury, you can use standard freezer spray to solidify it before picking it up (tweezers or gloves if you can, as much to keep it cool as to prevent HORROR NERVE DEATH).

My favourite mercury use is in mercury vapour rectifiers (aka mercury arc rectifiers/valves), which are - or were, they've been almost entirely replaced by semiconductors now - most commonly vaguely octopoid large glass vessels that turn high power AC into DC while making a splendid if dangerously UV-laden glow quite suitable for Dr Frankenstein's laboratory. They got used in electric trains, industrial applications and high-voltage DC distribution systems, where they could be as big as a small house (although, alas, these sorts were metal-cased and just look vaguely Strangelovian). The glass variants were known in the UK as Mekons, for their resemblance to the Dan Dare alien mastermind of that name, and not to any resemblance to the band. Although certain members of the band are growing to resemble their namesakes as time goes on.

There are still some applications that use specialist versions of mercury-arc rectifiers, called ignitrons, which are simpler than Mekons but are more robust and puissant than even the butchest semiconductor.
posted by Devonian at 11:18 AM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


So the pod was evacuated (yeah, it's from that era), the men in yellow suits arrived, and suffice to say that I was not allowed to recover my property.

Back in my day, someone spilled some mercury during a chemistry class, we were floating metal objects in a beaker full of it to determine if their density was higher or lower than Mercury. The floor was linoleum so the teacher and a few of us helped scrape the thousands of little globules into a puddle with index cards, then he scooped it up and put it back in the bottle. The teacher was furious, we got dirt in his mercury. Then he went over to the sink and washed his hands with acetone, just like he always did.

Somewhere in my days as a chemistry student, I recall reading a tale of a university chem department that had a ritual hazing for new grad students. They would take the student out for beers, and when he was a bit drunk, they'd challenge him to chug a beer that had about an inch of mercury in the bottom of the glass. They would wait for the mercury to rapidly run through his gut by gravity, and a few minutes later, the look on his face when it poured out of his sphincter and suddenly he had a clammy, wet feeling in his shorts. Oh the hilarity.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:07 PM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


Nice Sealab 2021 reference in the title. That is one of my absolutely favorite episodes.
posted by daq at 2:31 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I also remember sweeping mercury up aster I put a huge thermometer in a bunson burner flame.

You're not the only one to do this, I had a lab-mate back in organic chemistry lab who did this and the bulb popped and spewed mercury all over the counter. After the big cleanup, no less then six people asked him, "What did you think would happen?" He wanted to be a doctor, dunno if he made it.

I just found a mercury tilt switch while cleaning out the basement. It's pretty neat to play with. It's waiting until I make a trip to the dump to give it to the hazardous waste disposal dude.

But it reminded me about General Motors using its 2008 bankruptcy and bailout as justification for walking away from its commitment to capturing the dozens of tons of mercury used in switches in their vehicles prior to 2003. I had heard they were reconsidering this decision, but sadly they aren't currently listed as an ELVS member. Jerks.
posted by peeedro at 4:12 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]




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