Saturday, October 25, 2008

Eye Candy

The Elements

Those of us who took high school chemistry are familiar with the Periodic Table on the right. It organizes all the chemical elements, the most basic building blocks that make up all matter in the Universe. Some of these elements are so common that we encounter them in our everyday lives. Others are much rarer, some practically unheard of.
For a while now, I've been posting articles on Hansisgreat about each of the elements in the Periodic Table. As it turns out, even the most obscure elements have interesting stories and uses. Today, I'm posting on three metals...

Palladium:
Atomic Symbol: Pd
Atomic Number: 46
Palladium is part of a wider story that led to the discovery of four previously unknown elements (palladium, rhodium, osmium, and iridium) by London chemists Wollaston and Tennant. Wollaston brought most of his palladium to a jewelry store in 1803, where it was sold as "new silver", costing six times as much as gold. Attempts were made to popularize the metal as an untarnishable silver, and it was often used in medals presented to royalty commemorating important events.
The metal's main industrial use is in catalytic converters for cars, which relied on platinum until 1990, when palladium was discovered to be much more effective at removing hydrocarbons from fuel exhaust. It is also added to gold jewelry to give it a bright luster, known as "white gold".
Palladium was named for the asteroid Pallas, discovered the same year as the element.

Silver:
Atomic Symbol: Ag
Atomic Number: 47
Slag heaps near ancient mines reveal that silver has been used by man since 3000 BC. When it first appeared in Egypt, it was more valuable than gold. Silver was refined by a process called cupellation, discovered by the Chaldeans and described in the Bible (Ezekiel 22: 17-22).
Medieval physicians sold silver nitrate, which they called lunar caustic, for relief of various ailments. Medical treatment with silver has its drawbacks, however: it causes grayness of the skin, hair, and eyes; a condition known as argyria.
In 1884, German obstetrician Dr. F. Crede showed that silver nitrate eye drops could be used to prevent blindness in infants by killing the microbial infection that caused the disease. In fact, silver is poisonous to virtually all microorganisms.
Photography would be impossible without silver. This is because some of its compounds are sensitive to light. Silver has also been used for centuries to purify drinking water, which explains why silver coins are found at the bottom of many wells.

Cadmium:
Atomic Symbol: Cd
Atomic Number: 48
One of the most controversial elements, because in spite of its many industrial uses, cadmium is toxic to humans and can remain in the body for as long as 30 years once it is ingested.
In spite of this drawback, nickel-cadmium batteries are quickly replacing lead-based batteries because they are much lighter, and more environmentally friendly: they can be recharged a thousand times or more and still work well. Nissan and Volkswagen are both producing electric cars which rely on these batteries, and use not a drop of oil for fuel. They are expected to be on the market in 2010.
Solar panels constructed of cadmium metal have exceptional efficiency for converting sunlight into electricity. A square meter of such a panel can generate a power output of over 100 watts.
This element is only very slightly radioactive. Out of every million cadmium atoms that date from the creation of the Universe, 15 billion years ago, only one has since disintegrated.

There's an amazing book on the Periodic Table called Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, by John Emsley. It's been an invaluable resource for me when writing these chemistry posts, and is highly recommended for the chemistry enthusiast.

For my posts on the previous 45 elements, click here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Eye Candy

This Land Is Their Land

This Land Is Their Land, by Barbara Ehrenreich
$16.32 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 0805088407
Worldwide economic crisis brought on by corporate greed makes this a very timely and relevant new book by the distinguished author of Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America. It asks some very poignant questions about the excesses of capitalism and how, in a fair economy, someone can make an $800 million salary as CEO of a company that pays its employees less than $10 an hour. What's the story behind America's concentration of wealth in the hands of 2% of the population?
For example, Robert Nardelli was CEO of Home Depot during a period when the company's stock price fell from $50 per share to $41. Stores were closed, employees were laid off, and Nardelli was given a $300 million bonus in addition to his $64 million a year salary. As the company tanks, those at the top are getting richer than they'd ever been before.
Several of the people on Forbes list of the richest Americans are from the Walton family which owns Wal-Mart, boasting a combined 
fortune of over $65 billion while breaking up unions and paying employees $7-10 per hour. These are second and third generation Waltons who inherited their money and played little to no part in Wal-Mart's growth, yet they have more money than the poorest third of the country combined.
Ehrenreich also gives examples of how the wealthy elite gouges the poor. For example, a routine appendectomy costs insurance provider AIG $6,783. Don't have insurance? The same operation costs you $29,000; four times the cost to the insurance giant which was recently bailed out by the government days before the executives took a $400,000 spa vacation. Meanwhile 18,000 Americans die each year without health insurance. That's 9/11 times six.
The super-rich are absorbing an ever larger share of our national income while the companies they run fall into ruin. This flouts the very principle of capitalist exchange, that what you get paid should in some way reflect the work that you've done or the "value added".
There's been a lot of talk in the media lately about corporate greed. Ehrenreich did a lot of research for this book, but leaves the reader to reach their own conclusions once the facts are stated. This Land is Their Land is deeply relevant to our time, highly informative, and even quite entertaining. Prepare to be outraged.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Eye Candy

The History of Civilization

Chapter Sixteen: Greece Commits Suicide

One of the great tragedies of ancient history is the collapse of Hellenistic civilization just a few decades after Greece united to expel the Persian invasion, developed the world's first democracy, and reached the peak of cultural development described in the last chapter. For almost thirty years at the end of the fifth century BC, the Athenian Empire fought the Spartan Alliance, destabilizing Greek city-states, which ultimately weakened their capacity to resist conquest from outside.
Pericles desperately campaigned for peace while preparing for war. Meanwhile, the historian Thucydides explains much in a single sentence: "The Peloponnesus (Sparta) and Athens were both full of young men whose inexperience made them eager to take up arms.

The basic cause of the war was the growth of the Athenian Empire and its control over the commercial and political life of the Aegean.

Athens allowed free trade there in times of peace, but only with imperial permission. No vessel could sail without its consent, and Athenian agents decided the destination of every ship. Athens defended this domination as a vital necessity: it was dependent on imported food, and was determined to guard the routes by which this food came. By protecting international trade, Athens performed a real service to the peace and prosperity of all Greece, but the process became more and more irksome as the pride and wealth of the subject cities grew.

The inherent contradictions between a city claiming to be a democracy, but exercising the despotism of an empire over its neighbors ultimately led to the end of the Golden Age.

In 430, plague came to Athens, killing more than a quarter of its soldiers. During this period of weakness, the Corinthian colony of Corcyra declared itself independent of Corinth. Both Athenian and Spartan armies rushed to its aid, coming into conflict with one another.
In a moment of panic, the Athenians condemned and exiled Pericles, who died a broken man a few years later. His successors were hawks, eager to use land and sea military might to subdue their enemies.

After several costly but indecisive battles, both Sparta and Athens agreed to a fifty year treaty called the Peace of Nicias, signed in 421 BC.

Unfortunately, the treaty hadn't solved any of the issues that had led to the war in the first place. Although it allowed both sides a chance to recover and recruit new soldiers, it lasted only seven years before fighting resumed.

Persia, still longing to conquer Greece and Asia Minor, began supporting both sides hoping that they'd wear each other out in the conflict. In spite of the best efforts of a few peacemakers, the Peloponnesian War continued, and brought to the stage one of the most unusual and unscrupulous politicians in history.

To be continued...

There is an outstanding book on The Peloponnesian War, by Donald Kagan, one of the exceptional scholars of ancient history in our time. Highly recommended both to learn about ancient warfare, and for its pure entertainment value.

For my previous posts on the History of Civilization, click here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Eye Candy

Fallen Angels

Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers
ISBN: 0545055768
This brilliant, exciting, and deeply sensitive book touches on the horrors of war, becoming a man, and the injustice of racial inequality. With heavy themes like this, it might sound like a boring downer, but Fallen Angels is from the "Teen" section of your local bookstore: full of action and easy to read, perfectly acceptable for adults who are looking for something light and amusing.
Richie, the story's hero, graduates from high school in 1967 Harlem, a bleak slum from which he has little chance of going to college and becoming a success. For this reason, he joins the army, which quickly sends him into the Vietnam War.
He finds himself under the command of Lt. Carroll, a competent and caring officer whose entire platoon was recently killed in spite of his best efforts to save them. Richie makes friends with four other boys in his unit: Peewee, Lobel, Johnson, and Brunner. They've all joined the army for their own reasons, and have very different reactions when they find themselves in heavy combat.
The author usually writes about disenfranchised American youth in the inner city, but captures the carnage and horror of jungle warfare perfectly. After a brief warning about taking malaria pills and avoiding VD from the local women, the mostly teenage company is conducting dangerous night raids and pulse-quickening reconnaissance missions.
Throughout his tour of duty, Richie contemplates some of the injustices about the Vietnam War. He quickly notices that squads of black soldiers are often given the most risky missions, inequality in the army the same as what he had experienced back in Harlem.
He also develops a striking empathy with the Vietnamese, even as he watches his own American friends being killed around him. It's very sad: he and his teammates make friends with a little Vietnamese girl when they first arrive, but soon they witness the killing of innocent children in a country they realize they've unrighteously invaded.
Most of Myers' books are marketed to teenage boys who don't normally like to read. He strikes a perfect balance: there's lots of violence (which boys generally love), but it doesn't get inappropriately gruesome or needlessly sadistic. 
It's an outstanding novel about the hardships of adult life, with all the excitement of war coupled with the bitter pang of racial and political injustice. Intricate social commentary is not usually an easy sale to teenagers, but Fallen Angels accomplishes it with grace and style. This book is the model of cool; a great choice for the kid in your life, or an adult looking for an easy to read thrill ride.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Eye Candy