Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

In your element catch up

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted about our ‘In your element’ pieces for a couple of months — this is partly because things have been very busy over at the journal [I know I always say that… but it’s because it’s always true!] and also partly because these articles are now freely available online.

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© THE PRINT COLLECTOR/ALAMY

After the New Year, we might stop posting about them altogether and let you go to the articles directly — but we’ll continue to update the periodic table here. And before that happens, let me share with you a few snippets from our three most recent elements.

In our November issue, science writer John Emsley took a detailed look at just how essential manganese is for life. Because the body human needs so little of it (a person contains on average of 12 mg) this only came to our attention in the 1950s, but manganese is present in many enzymes. It is the manganese superoxide dismutase, for example, that protects cells against the superoxide radical O2 (through dismutation into oxygen and hydrogen peroxide). Read the article to find out how manganese also turned up at the bottom of the sea.

In the December piece, geochemist Joel Blum from the University of Michigan, who works on understanding mercury’s behaviour in the environment, discussed why he fell under its spell. The metal that is liquid at room temperature, and particularly dense, has long captivated chemists and before them alchemists. Yet it is notoriously dangerous: mercury is a neurotoxin in most of its form, toxic by ingestion, inhalation and through the skin, both through chronic or acute exposure. It is mercury poisoning that caused hatters to develop dementia, owing to a step in the process of making felt hats that used a mercuric nitrate solution (Hg(NO3)2·2H2O) — their erratic behaviour led to the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’. The risks of mercury exposure were recognized at the end of the 19th century.

And the January article, which went live earlier this week, saw Markku Räsänen from the University of Helsinki reminisce about making the first neutral argon compound, HArF, in 1999 — also just before Christmas —  together with Mika Pettersson and Jan Lundell (now both professors in the University of Jyväskylä) and Leonid Khriachtchev (in the Räsänen group). Argon and the other noble gases have shown over the past several years that they can indeed form compounds, including hydrides. To what extent? We don’t know for sure yet. Theoretists and experimentalists, to your computers and benches!

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