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.
Join me on my Hunt for the Elements, right now, on NOVA. They tell me that so much money flows out of this place, it's like a gold mine. 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.
To see what it takes to get something bigger than that tiny bead, I visit the processing plant where the ore ends up. Here too, extraction begins with crushing, in these huge tumblers. So what the farmers would do is they would say, for example, "David, you loan me some money, okay? I can hardly think of anything that doesn't have either a tiny bit of copper or lots of copper. When placed in a circuit, the negatively charged particles line up and flow as an electric current.
And that sets the stage for the trickiest step, coaxing the microscopic gold out of the rocky ore. And then, in the future, I will sell you that crop that I planted for this amount of dollar." So what I'm doing is I'm selling you the right to buy or sell my future crops. The sea of electrons also creates flexible, metallic bonds among the atoms.
And I wouldn't mind taking a look at these under your magic microscope. Scientists have understood, since the early 20th century, that metals are crystals; that is, they have an orderly arrangement of atoms. They're, they're like a little aerial photo of a planned community. The atoms in our bronze are unusually well ordered.
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. Our bell makers must be true masters of their craft.