Decades of complex geopolitical chaos ultimately result in one afternoon’s rather embarrassing hospital visit.
Featured above: The light from a neodymium-doped YAG laser. I didn’t actually get a chance to talk about that in this episode, but we covered YAG lasers in Episode 39, Yttrium, and this is a way cooler photo than anything else I found. Photo by Ben Williams, CC BY-NC 2.0.
Here’s something that doesn’t happen too often! I got so caught up writing the show notes that I haven’t had time to add my sources in just yet. Well, I would certainly like to close the eighty-something tabs I currently have open, so I’ll be adding those ASAP.
The The: It might sound strange to hear the country referred to as “Congo” rather than “The Congo.” There’s some popular confusion over the name, and it’s understandable why.
For now, it’s known as The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Before that, it was the Republic of Zaire, and before that The Democratic Republic of the Congo again, but only very briefly. Up to that point, it was called the Republic of Congo-Leopoldville (as in the Belgian King Leopold), Belgian Congo before that, and the Congo Free State before that. (It was not “free,” King Leopold treated it as his own private playground. Incidentally, you could fit at least 75 Belgiums within the borders of one Congo.
Prior to all that, it was called the Kingdom of Kongo, and it existed as a vast and thriving nation with more than 400 years of art, politics, religion, and economics that’s rarely spoken about in Western history classes.
The Portuguese claimed the land for a brief time before the Belgians, and they’re the ones who turned that K into a C.
The definite article “the” is in plenty of those names, so it’s understandable why “the Congo” is popular. There’s also “the Congo River Basin,” which is what the region would be called on a non-political map.
People get confused over Ukraine for similar reasons. That country’s name means “borderlands,” so it’s easy to confuse the proper noun for someone just talking about “the borderlands.”
The CIA World Factbook agrees on all that, but citing them feels a little bit like sincerely asking the gradeschool bully what everyone’s nickname is.
That Escalated Quickly: I realize that some people might be skeptical that a sitting president would casually order the assassination of a foreign leader. To that I say “ha,” but I admit it’s a bold assertion and I kind of flew right past it. I reference my cited sources in the body of the script, but I’ll just go ahead and explicitly call them out here, too. (One of those sources is the CIA’s own website.)
But in the end, it was the Belgians who got to Lumumba. As for how they did it, well, you can read about it if you want, but it’s quite disturbing. One of the men who committed the crime spoke about it years later, saying, “We did things an animal wouldn’t do. That’s why we were drunk. Stone drunk.”
Worth Viewing: The DRC’s mining industry remains a human rights nightmare today, relying on child labor, miners working with their bare hands, and much worse. In my research I came across this excellent multimedia essay on the subject, and I highly recommend it. The impression I took away is that some of humanity’s worst abuses are happening in one of the world’s most beautiful places.
Unbelievable, Yet Inevitable: Preceding the Battle of Kolwezi, the Soviet Union had been buying up all the available cobalt on the open market. Rumors swirled that they provided the funding for the uprising.
They may have. France, Angola, Cuba, East Germany, Morocco, and other countries were all involved somehow. The fact that African history is not more widely taught in schools is one of the many, many things I find myself describing as “shocking, but not surprising.”
Pont Neuf Is The Oldest Bridge In Paris: The only slightly awkward part, which you might’ve picked up on early, is that what we call “neodymium magnets” are actually mostly made of iron — but that doesn’t make them any less historically or scientifically significant.
Fun To Imagine: Magnets are really very difficult to wrap your head around, especially without a fairly sophisticated understanding of physics. Don’t take my word for it — just listen to Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, grapple with an explanation:
(The whole interview is worth watching, if you have the time.)
The Original DHARMA Initiative: Los Alamos was ground zero for the Manhattan Project (literally), and scientific research continues there today. A few years ago, they broke a world record for strongest non-destructive magnetic pulse — and they caught it on video, too. It’s a short video, and pretty cool just to see that moment of pure jubilation. What stands out to me most, though, is that the brief experiment sounds like a noise that you’d hear from the Smoke Monster on Lost.
A Likely Story, And Probably True: In 1994, the Marks Brothers tried to raise a bit of a kerfuffle in the chemistry community. Not the comedians, obviously. They were already long dead by that point. No, I’m talking about John and Gordon Marks, who published a paper in Foundations Of Chemistry called, “Newlands Revisited: A Display Of The Periodicity Of The Chemical Elements For Chemists.”
In it, they took great issue with the periodic table. Mostly for its presentation, but in a brief postscript, they also gripe about some of the elements’ names:
Undoubtedly ugly names, like dysprosium and neodymium, and confusing ones, like terbium, ytterbium and erbium, aggravate this [boring story]. The problem is not confined to the lanthanides, with unimaginative examples like technetium, protoactinium and astatine. Some alternatives are offered with names that are equivalent contemporary (at the time and place of discovery) metaphors, both more euphonious and more memorable:”
They proceed to provide a list of names that are neither more euphonious nor more memorably, but merely ahistorical. For neodymium, they recommend “tyrium.” You want to overhaul 500 years of accumulated knowledge and that’s the best you can come up with? Yawn.
At the time of this episode’s original broadcast on May 4, 2020, the world is in a rather strange state. More than three billion humans have spent nearly two solid months confined to their homes in an effort to slow the spread of a historically deadly pandemic.
Make no mistake: compared to those who are tending to the sick or otherwise keeping civilization afloat, we who have been staying home are extremely fortunate. That said, the boredom is starting to affect people.
For instance, Dr. Daniel Reardon is an Australian astrophysicist who usually spends his days unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos’ most powerful phenomena, like pulsars and gravity waves. In late March, he was admitted to the hospital with two extremely powerful neodymium magnets stuck up his nose.1
He started with the best of intentions. Reardon was attempting to build a device that would dissuade the user from touching their face in the name of hygiene. A necklace capable of detecting magnetic fields would sound an alarm upon the approach of bracelets containing powerful magnets.
An interesting idea, but unfortunately, it did the exact opposite. “I accidentally invented a necklace that buzzes continuously unless you move your hand close to your face,” he told The Guardian.
Slightly defeated, Reardon began idly playing with the magnets, attaching them first to his earlobes, and then to his nostrils. That was when two of the magnets accidentally slipped far up his nose.
He thought he might be able to pull the foreign objects out by using more magnets. “I lost my grip,” he said, “And those two magnets ended up in my left nostril while the other one was in my right. At this point I ran out of magnets.”
Reardon’s partner, who works at a hospital, was reportedly unable to stop laughing to assist.
He then reached for a pair of pliers, but in the tug-of-war between the pliers and the magnets, the magnets won. “Every time I brought the pliers close to my nose, my entire nose would shift towards the pliers and then the pliers would stick to the magnet,” he said. “It was a little bit painful at this point.”
Doctors at the hospital were able to remove the magnets from his head once they, too, stopped laughing.
So if you’ve ever suffered an embarrassing moment, take heart: it happens to the smartest among us.
To be fair, those powerful magnets are a lot of fun to play with, even when you haven’t been locked indoors for weeks.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes neodymium so… attractive.
You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.
Today, we’re getting all spun up about neodymium.
Element 60 is a distinguished specimen, because it has done what no other lanthanide has yet been able to do: It’s kind of become a household name. Gadolinium, dysprosium, samarium, and even the twin sibling of today’s subject are all likely to earn blank stares when mentioned to the lay person. But more often than not, neodymium will be met with at least faint recognition. “Uh… Oh, [snap fingers] yeah! Those are the magnets, right?”
Indeed! Neodymium magnets are an essential part of practically every electronic device that we touch. We rely on them to store our digital data, to scan our bodies when diagnosing medical conditions, to speed across the countryside in levitating trains. (Well, some countrysides, anyway.) And that’s without mentioning their ability to generate electricity or drive motors, which might be even more important.
If you’ve ever been surprised by the size of a mobile phone made in the year 2000 compared to one made in 2020, neodymium provides part of the explanation. Neodymium magnets pack a lot of power in a small package, and over time, scientists have discovered ways to make them even stronger. That means, for instance, more compact microphones, vibration motors, and autofocus lenses, which all go a long way toward making smaller phones.2 3
For all that, neodymium magnets didn’t even exist forty years ago. For a long time, there simply wasn’t any need for them. But that changed practically overnight in May 1978, and one of the men responsible for that change was Mobutu Sese Seko, the totalitarian dictator who ruled over the African nation of Zaire for over thirty bloody years.4 5
Before 1971 and after 1997, Zaire was known as Congo or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, respectively. By any name, the country’s history is marred by generations of colonial oppression, particularly at the hands of the Belgian government. It’s well outside the scope of this episode, but have you ever wondered why Belgium, a northern European country with a temperate climate, is world-renowned for its chocolate, a food made from the seeds of a tropical tree? The answer is not pleasant.
Belgian rule came to an end in 1960 with the democratic election of the newly independent nation’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. He was an anti-colonial leader who espoused dignity, equality, and liberty, and sought to make his country a neutral state that took neither side in the Cold War.
That really irritated some of the other players on the world stage, most notably Belgium and the United States. President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to assassinate Lumumba, which they planned to accomplish by lacing his toothpaste with poison.6 7 8 9 10 11
They never got the chance to try, though. Many different factions were vying for Lumumba’s position, and in September 1960, it was seized by Lumumba’s own Army Chief of Staff, Joseph-Desire Mobutu. He led a coup, and over the next several months, he established himself as the country’s ultimate authority. He gave himself a new name: Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, meaning “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” Lumumba was imprisoned and later met an especially grisly fate. (Western governments found this to be an equally satisfactory outcome.)12
Mobutu had taken control of a land that was unbelievably rich in natural resources — which is, at best, a mixed blessing.13 Possessing the raw materials of civilization is highly valuable — so valuable that theft might appear more alluring than trade. We saw five centuries of that in Bolivia all the way back in Episode 3, Lithium.
Rubber, timber, oil, diamonds, gold, tin, and copper are all abundant in Congo. So are radium and lime, and the uranium that fueled America’s first atomic bombs came from a Congolese mine. But perhaps its most strategic resource is cobalt. In the 1970s, the most widely used magnets were made from an alloy of samarium and cobalt. Then, as now, Congo provided nearly two thirds of the world’s cobalt supply. In a roundabout way, the electronics industry across the globe was critically dependent on the mines in Zaire.14
Mobutu was happy to pull minerals out of the ground as fast as other countries would buy them — and he made sure that all the profits were funneled directly to his personal friends. The people of Zaire lived in abject poverty, which Mobutu used to justify his massive requests for foreign aid. Wealthier nations delivered that aid, and again, most of that money went straight to Mobutu and his cronies. While his citizens lacked essential resources, Mobutu built a $100 million palace in the jungle. Children labored in the mines and protesters were tortured while the president traveled to Paris by supersonic jet for lavish shopping sprees.15
That kind of leadership tends to earn a lot of enemies, and Mobutu was surrounded by them from within his own country and without. In 1978, some of those enemies led an uprising in Kolwezi, a medium-sized city that’s home to many of those cobalt mines. Thousands of hostages were taken, sniper bullets crossed paths with rocket fire, and over a dozen countries from every hemisphere were ensnared in the conflict.16
The outbreak was quickly quelled, and Mobutu emerged even stronger, but the minor metals market was traumatized. In less than a year, the price of cobalt rose from ten dollars per pound to more than sixty. Corporations around the world shared a sudden epiphany that their supply lines were extremely fragile. They mainly explored two solutions to the problem: Finding new sources of cobalt, and finding new materials to replace cobalt.17
Junior research scientist Masato Sagawa had been assigned the latter task by his bosses at Fujitsu, and he learned all he could about magnetism, especially the cobalt-samarium variety. Magnetism is about as complex a subject as central African political history, but here’s a simplification: Electrons have three intrinsic qualities: An electric charge, negative; a mass, “very very small;” and finally, a property called “spin.” Electrons don’t actually rotate on a central axis like the Earth does, but the analogy is accurate enough for our purposes today.18
Electrons can spin in one of two ways: up or down. Usually, for each electron spinning up as it orbits an atom, there’s another electron spinning down. The two are paired together, and their spins cancel out. It’s kind of like how a proton’s positive electric charge cancels out the electron’s negative one.
But some atoms have rogue electrons, which have no partner, which gives the atom an overall non-zero amount of spin. It basically turns the atom itself into a tiny magnet. The kind of magnets you can hold in your hand are made of a whole lot of atoms like that, all pointing in the same direction, working in unison to generate a much stronger magnetic field.
Cobalt has three unpaired electrons, but it’s difficult to get a bunch of cobalt atoms to agree to permanently point in the same direction. That’s where samarium comes in. Samarium atoms can slide in between cobalt atoms and get them to form a much more orderly structure. That results in a permanent, and powerful, magnet.
Iron has the strongest magnetic behavior of any element on the periodic table, and Sagawa thought neodymium could do for iron what samarium does for cobalt. Easier said than done, though. That endeavor kept him toiling in the lab late into the night for years, even when he had a newborn baby at home. His colleagues lost faith, not in Sagawa’s ability, but in the project’s very feasibility. At a conference Sagawa attended in 1978, one of the leading researchers in the field outright said that such an iron-rare earth magnet was impossible to create. Iron atoms pack together too tightly, he explained, for a suitable crystal structure to ever form.
Sometimes a little rejection can be highly motivating. Sagawa became more determined than ever to do that which had been called “impossible.” He took away a pretty good idea from that talk, too: Iron atoms do pack together too tightly… but maybe he could introduce a little space by wedging a smaller atom between them. After some further experimentation, it seemed that boron would fit the bill nicely.
Thus was born the NIB: the neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet — more powerful and more popular than any that had come before. Sagawa joined the ranks of those scientists who accomplished something that experts deemed impossible, and hopefully got to spend a little more time with his family.
There are less obvious opportunities for acquiring element 60. It’s distributed so widely across the planet that you could successfully search for it at the bottom of the ocean — and you wouldn’t be alone.
We’ve discussed radiometric dating before, particularly with carbon: When investigating something that’s been dead for a very long time, compare the sample’s radioactive carbon-14 content to the amount of its decay product, carbon-12, and you can get a good idea of when the something died. Carbon is especially suited to this procedure because anything that’s ever been alive contains a whole lot of carbon.
That’s really valuable for the archaeologists and biologists, but not so great for the geologists. The problem is, stuff that’s alive tends to move around. It moves around a lot, in fact, and at a rather brisk pace — at least compared to the speed of tectonic plates. Along those lines, carbon also decays far too quickly, on the order of thousands of years. It’s useless for a geologist.
The lanthanides, however, have almost no known roles in biology, so they tend to stay wherever the mountains move them. In particular, samarium-147 decays into neodymium-143 with a nice, leisurely half-life around 100 billion years. The geologist appreciates this reliable tool for determining the age of rocks and meteorites, and studying the distribution of these elements along the ocean floor can reveal the patterns of ocean currents from ages past.19 20 21
Before neodymium became so commonplace in magnets, it didn’t have much use except as a component of artisanal glassware. Integrating a small amount within the glass will lend it a soft and strange pink color. It’s not the hue of the pink that’s so strange, but rather the fact that when brought out of the sunlight and placed beneath fluorescent lamps, it gives way to an icy blue. The material was quite trendy in the 1930s, when it was sold under whimsical names like Alexandrite, Heatherbloom, Twilight, and Wisteria Glass.22
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with stocking your own periodic table with the classic magnet. They are certainly easier to acquire than rare specimens of antique glass. In fact, if you’re using headphones to listen to this podcast, you probably have a little neodymium in your ear already. As this program’s host, I’m grateful that you do — but, as Dr. Reardon would surely warn, please keep it far away from your nose and mouth.
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn why the Marks Brothers hated neodymium visit episodic table dot com slash N d.
Next time, we’ll steal promethium from Mount Olympus.
Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that everyone laughed at the time, but Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J were actually asking a pretty profound question.
- The Guardian, Astrophysicist Gets Magnets Stuck Up Nose While Inventing Coronavirus Device. Naaman Zhou, March 30, 2020.
- Nature Chemistry, The Neodymium Neologism. Brett F. Thornton and Shawn C. Burdette, January 24, 2017.
- Ideal Magnet Solutions, Small NdFeB Magnets In Smartphones And Personal Electronics.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Mobutu Sese Seko. Last updated March 18, 2020.
- The Elements Of Power: Gadgets, Guns, And The Struggle For A Sustainable Future In The Rare Metal Age, p. 18-28. David S. Abraham, 2013.
- Studies In Intelligence, Death In The Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba, Reviewed By Stephen R. Weissman. December 2015.
- Declassified CIA memorandum, February 1972.
- The Independent, Eisenhower Ordered Congo Killing. Alex Duval Smith, August 14, 2000.
- The Guardian, President ‘Ordered Murder’ Of Congo Leader. Martin Kettle, August 9, 2000.
- BBC News, Who Killed Lumumba? October 21, 2000.
- The New York Times, The C.I.A. And Lumumba, August 2, 1981.
- Crash Course World History, Congo And Africa’s World War. January 16, 2015.
- BBC News, DR Congo: Cursed By Its Natural Wealth. October 9, 2013.
- The Washington Post, Demand For Congo’s Cobalt Is On The Rise. So Is The Scrutiny Of Mining Practices. Sarah Katz-Lavigne, February 21, 2019.
- The New York Times, The Foreign Aid Gamble In Africa. Raymond Bonner, June 22, 1997.
- The Atlantic, Zaire: An African Horror Story. Bill Berkeley, August 1993.
- The New York Times, Zaire’s Bloody Past Makes Cobalt’s Future Uncertain. Alan Cowell, August 30, 1981.
- Scientific American, What Exactly Is The ‘Spin’ Of Subatomic Particles Such As Electrons And Protons? Does It Have Any Physical Significance, Analogous To The Spin Of A Planet? October 21, 1999.
- Encyclopedia Of Scientific Dating Methods, Sm-Nd Dating. Richard W. Carlson, February 3, 2014.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Dating: Geochronology: Dating Metamorphic Rocks. Edwin A. Olson, Paul M. Karabinos, and Thomas Edvard Krogh, last updated January 2, 2019.
- Nature’s Building Blocks, p. 339. John Emsley, 2011.
- Beachcombing Magazine, Neodymium Sea Glass. Kirsti Scott, September 26, 2018.