Things I learnt: revelling in numbers and elements.

Probably says something about how I’m wired, that I get much more joy reading about materials and physical sciences and the inanimate/inorganic world, than about the biological sciences and living things. And there’s joy in learning about mathematics too. What is there not to love about numbers and elements!

Working with them, though? Chemical elements are a part of daily working life, but advanced math isn’t and takes a bit more effort to enjoy. But, while meeting prerequisites for freshman undergraduate science, instead of taking the standard math unit for science majors that everyone else took, I chose the calculus unit for math majors. The professor was engaging and I understood things intuitively, but found it hard to apply them, worked like a dog to scrape up a pass, and have since forgotten everything from that unit. Yet, given the chance to revel in the wonders and confoundedness that is pure math, I could not pass up that opportunity then, and I still can’t. (Doing a degree in math and physics has been on my bucket list ever since.)


Thanks to the recommendation from @Miraz, I’ve been listening to the podcast Elemental, created to celebrate 150 years of the periodic table. That revived a desire to learn about chemical elements, and when that hits me, I go browse Theodore Gray’s Wooden Periodic Table Table, website for an amazing project. I’ve been following the site since I was in high school. Mr. Gray tells entertaining and educational stories about each element through showcasing samples of elements, and browsing the photographs gives a certain visceral, real quality to the learning.

I feel like Alice, falling down the rabbit hole, exploring a Wonderland filled with zany personalities. And from the Periodic Table Table to Wikipedia and beyond, down rabbit trails of materials sciences, metallurgy, and the crazy world of elements — things that make up all creation but are so often unseen and unnoticed.

This wonderland shows me how God loves his creation, that he has made so many diverse elements to play with. He was the first to use these building blocks, now he’s given them to us to play with too. Elements are so delightful!

Delightful things learnt:

The “tin cry“, though it sounds more like a crackle. Various metals cry, including tin, indium and mercury.

Tin pest, where one allotrope of tin spontaneously converts into another at the correct temperature/humidity conditions. It’s not a reaction with another chemical! There’s also zinc pest and bronze disease — both are a kind of corrosion.

Whiskering in metallurgy — how weird is this? Metals growing whiskers without needing heat, dissolving, or an electric field! And people don’t know how it happens!

Fiestaware was ceramic homeware/tableware, coated with a uranium salt for the red glaze. Fiestaware made in the 1950s was HOT.

A natural nuclear fission reactor in Gabon that depleted itself millions of years ago. Imagine that, nuclear fission in nature!

Bismuth is still my favourite element. Look, pretty crystals! Sad to discover that it’s no longer the heaviest non-radioactive element. But it has a half-life longer than the age of the universe, so there’s that.

I still want to hold this tungsten cylinder, a centrepiece in Mr. Gray’s Table. Apparently tungsten has the same density as gold, so it’s a good substitute if you want to feel the weight and size of a decent-sized amount of gold but don’t have easy access to bullion.

Buy some uranium here. I love how this is possible in the United States. (But I doubt this will get past customs import where I live.)


The History of English podcast, episode 114, was a romp through the linguistic origins of numbers. That got me learning how to count in base-12. There’s a strong case for using duodecimal or “dozenal” instead of our usual base-10/metric system, because the number 12 has the advantage of being a superior highly composite number, making multiplication, division and fractions easier to do.

A great video teaching how to count in dozenal. I played around with converting numbers from base-10 and adding/subtracting in dozenal, and it actually makes a lot of sense and wasn’t that hard to learn.

The video also shows how you can count to 60 in base-12 on two hands, apparently still used in cultures with Indo-European roots. Amazing how human hands have produced two very different counting systems. (There’s also a third: counting to 31 on one hand in binary/base-2. I have to say, learning this physical counting method gave me a deeper conceptual understanding of the links between 0’s/1’s and computer bits.)

This led me down the arithmetic trail, inevitably ending at this and this, and now I want to (re)learn how to use an abacus. I learnt the basics of the abacus in primary school in a Math extension class, but, as typical for a kid, was completely uninterested then. Never too late to revive the interest and learning.

One thought on “Things I learnt: revelling in numbers and elements.”

  1. @vega So glad you’ve enjoyed Elemental. I’m still working my way through them. 😀 Now I’ll recommend a book: Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures – . I read it a couple of years back. He includes info about cultures who don’t do counting at all, and about how the human brain is wired to count to 3 but not beyond.

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