4. Beryllium: The Modern Sisyphus

As we try to dive deep into beryllium, we discover its irritating tendency to send us back to the beginning.

Featured above: The crew of the NSEA Protector II retrieve a beryllium sphere from the surface of Epsilon Gorniar II.

Show Notes

Spectacular: Some of the oldest word origins we can trace go back to a linguistic common ancestor of all Indian and European languages, probably spoken about 6,000 years ago. Beryl might be one of those words, with a possible connection to the city of Belur in southern India. If that is the case, then the word means, “This blue-green gem that I found near the city.”

However, some of the earliest eyeglasses in medieval times may have been made out of beryl — which might have then lent its name to the German brille and French besicles, both meaning “spectacles.”

A Rock Of A Different Color: The green color from emeralds comes from inclusions of chromium and/or vanadium. These inclusions aren’t chemically part of the beryllium aluminum silicate that constitutes “beryl.” It’s kind of like the chocolate chips in a cookie — the inclusions are sprinkled throughout.

One of the largest emeralds in the world, if not the largest, is the Bahia Emerald, a 752-pound uncut stone with an incredible story. The emerald was found in Brazil in 2001. When the mule team that pulled it through the jungle was eaten by panthers, it had to be carried by hand the rest of the way to town. Or at least, that’s what the description said in its $19 million dollar eBay listing. (Buy It Now price: $75 million.) The emerald has spent most of its life locked up in a California sheriff’s department, with several individuals and the country of Brazil all claiming legal ownership of the stone.

The whole saga is long and frankly confusing. Wired ran a story on “the giant green rock that ruins lives” in 2017, and any attempt of mine to retell that story would be a fool’s errand.

Just Because I’m Bad Guy Doesn’t Mean I Am Bad Guy: Emperor Nero wasn’t one of history’s kindest figures, but nonetheless, he wasn’t quite as bad as he’s often made out to be.

If there’s one thing most people “know” about Nero, it’s that “he fiddled while Rome burned.” And while that’s a useful aphorism in some awful situations, it’s almost exactly the opposite of what really happened. He was in an entirely different city when the great fire of Rome started, and quickly raced back when he received word. Rather than sit idly by, he sheltered the newly homeless and almost immediately enacted robust reconstruction efforts.

He was also something of a populist. He lowered taxes on the working classes and tried to ensure freedmen couldn’t be enslaved again.

He also mercilessly persecuted Christians as a vulnerable religious minority and had his own mother murdered, though, so at best, you might be able to generously call him “morally complex.”

Mythbusters Busted: The science of Optics was not understood very well in antiquity, but there was some level of understanding. There are some historical records indicating that in the second century B.C.E., Archimedes constructed a novel weapon that reflected and/or focused the rays of the sun in such a way that it could light a ship on fire. In other words: A death ray.

There’s some debate over whether this is actually true, but contrary to what Mythbusters claims, it seems like the math checks out.

Space Telescopes Again? One other property of beryllium is that it’s extremely tolerant of cold temperatures. Because this property, its strength, and its light weight, it’s being used in the construction of the mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope, a sort of spiritual successor to the Hubble.

And really only one of these can be called an emerald.

For The Pedantic Nerds: Yes, I know that in Fifth Edition, the catoblepas is technically in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, not the Monster Manual. Go easy on me.

Click To Read Transcript


  1. The Online Etymology Dictionary, Beryl.
  2. Library of Congress, Beryllium.
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica, Alkaline-Earth Metal. Courtenay Stanley Goss Phillips and Timothy P. Hanusa, last updated November 3, 2017.
  4. Chemguide, Reactions Of The Group 2 Elements With Water. Jim Clark, last modified November 2016.
  5. It’s Elemental, The Element Beryllium. Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility – Office of Science Education.
  6. Minerals.net, The Mineral Emerald.
  7. Gemological Institute of America, Emerald History and Lore.
  8. Gaius Plinius Secundus, Naturalis Historia, 37.16. Wikisource.
  9. The British Journal of Ophthalmology, Nero’s Emerald. September 1926, pp. 489-490.
  10. The Open Court, Volume 21, pp. 210-212. Edited by Paul Carus.
  11. History From Below, I Wear My Sunglasses To The Fight? The Emperor Nero And The History Of Sunglasses. Sarah Emily Bond, May 22, 2016.
  12. From Satan’s Crown To The Holy Grail: Emeralds In Myth, Magic, And History. pp. 57 – 59. Diane Morgan, 2007.
  13. Gaius Plinius Secundus, Naturalis Historia, 37.77. via Perseus Digital Library.
  14. Beryllium – A Unique Material In Nuclear Applications. T. A. Tomberlin, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.
  15. USGS Mineral Resources Program, Beryllium: Important For National Defense. May 2012.
  16. Reuters, U.S. Reveals Size Of Nuclear Arsenal. Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart, May 3, 2010.
  17. Materion.com, Materion Company History
  18. Chicago Tribune Obituaries, Herbert L. Anderson, 74, Early Nuclear Physicist. Kenan Heise, July 19, 1988.
  19. National Academy Of Sciences, Herbert L. Anderson, 1914 – 1988: A Biographical Memoir. Harold M. Agnew, 1997.
  20. The Toledo Blade, Deadly Alliance: How Government And Industry Chose Weapons Over Workers. March/April 1999.
  21. The Toledo Blade, Death Frees Beryllium Worker. Sam Roe, April 1, 1999.
  22. The Toledo Blade, Decades Of Risk: U.S. Knowingly Allowed Workers To Be Overexposed To Toxic Dust. Sam Roe, March 28, 1999.
  23. The Toledo Blade, Aid To Beryllium Victims Marks “New Era” In U.S. Sam Roe, July 16, 1999.
  24. The Augusta Chronicle, Sick-Worker Payment Plan Faces Doubts. June 20, 2001.
  25. Benefits.gov, The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.
  26. The New York Times, Under Trump, Worker Protections Are Viewed With New Skepticism. Barry Meier and Danielle Ivory, June 5, 2017.
  27. The Chicago Tribune, Beryllium Workers Get New Protections After Decades Of Delay. Sam Roe, January 6, 2017.
  28. CNN, Trump Puts Freeze On New Regulations. Tal Kopan, January 20, 2017.
  29. OSHA National News Release, US Labor Department’s OSHA Publishes Proposed Role On Beryllium Exposure. June 23, 2017.
  30. SUN News, OSHA’s Plans To Modify Beryllium Standards. Colin Fluxman, December 22, 2017.
  31. Mead Metals, Inc. Common Uses For Beryllium Copper. Dani Weinhandl, April 17, 2017.
  32. PeriodicTable.com, Gyroscope Sphere. Theodore W. Gray, 2007.

5 Replies to “4. Beryllium: The Modern Sisyphus”

  1. Best episode yet. This podcast is reminiscent of one of my old favorites, “Connections”, a BBC production hosted by James Burke first aired in the 1970’s. Informative and good fun. Keep up the good work, TR.

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