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.

Episode Script

The names of the elements account for much of the intrigue behind the periodic table. Numbers provide valuable data, but names provide essential color. Sometimes they reference the atom’s appearance or physical properties. Other elements are named after mythological figures or notable places, and a few have truly bizarre origins.

Beryllium is exceptional because it just might have the most boring name of all the elements.

It’s named after beryl, a gemstone that contains the element and usually takes on a blue or green color. The name of the stone comes from the Greek word berullos, which means… “this blue-green gem.” It’s really not any more poetic than that. At some point in history, somebody looked at a pretty rock and said, “Let’s call it ‘beryl,'” and everyone else just kinda went along with it.1

This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a little disappointing. Especially since it used to go by the name, “glucinum,” a name that comes from the Greek for “sweet,” in direct reference to the element’s surprising sugary taste. Chemically, it has nothing in common with sugar, this is a bug in our tongue’s programming. Element 4 just happens to light up our sweet-detecting taste buds like sugar does.

But this isn’t a unique trait. Other scientists noted that yttrium, element 39, is also deceptively sweet, so in 1949, the supreme overlords at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry decreed that element 4 be officially known as beryllium, the name that means… beryllium.2

Maybe that’s not such a tragedy. After all, it might be a bad idea to emphasize the enjoyable candy taste of an element that’s so powerfully toxic.

You’re listening to The Episodic Table of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each week, we’ll uncover the fascinating stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re running in circles with element 4, beryllium.

Beryllium introduces us to Group 2 on the periodic table, also known as the Alkaline Earth Metals. These are not to be confused with Group 1, the Alkali Metals, even though there are some similarities.3

They’re all very reactive, but to oversimplify a bit, the Alkali Metals dissolve in water — and rather violently, if you remember last episode. The Alkaline Earth Metals will combine with water to form compounds, but those compounds don’t react any further. They’ll just sink.4

Of course, the Alkaline Earth Metals can combine with more than just water, and often create beautiful rock crystals. When beryllium meets aluminum and silicon, it forms the gemstone mentioned earlier, beryl.

Near the end of the 18th century, prolific French chemist Nicolas-Louis Vauquelin was comparing samples of beryl and emerald. He found that they both contained a new element, and that’s how beryllium was discovered. 5

Vauquelin also discovered that beryl and emerald were actually the same thing. Emerald just happens to be a particularly green variety of beryl.6

That was interesting, because emeralds have historically been given much more value than beryl. Perhaps there’s just something special about that deep green color, but aside from superlative beauty, mystical properties have often been attributed to emeralds. Legends from around the world variously promise that emeralds can be a talisman against evil, divine the future, or force a person to tell the truth.7

There is one historical emerald whose exact purpose no one can really identify.

Nero princeps gladiatorum pugnas spectabat in smaragdo.”8

So it is written in Naturalis Historia, a 37-volume work by Pliny the Elder in an attempt to collect the sum total of world knowledge. It covered topics as disparate as the social structure of beehives to a history of medicine to the shape of the universe. Pliny had written the world’s first encyclopedia.

The final volume is dedicated to pearls, amber, and precious minerals. That’s where this phrase appears. In context, it’s barely an afterthought, but it tends to grab the attention of modern readers.

Translated, it means, “Emperor Nero watched the gladiator fights in an emerald.”

How interesting! How amusing! How… wait, what? What does that mean?

There’s some academic debate about that. Pliny’s statement marks the end of a passage about the remarkable qualities of emeralds; particularly, how they can be as reflective as mirrors. It’s possible that Nero watched the games backwards, reflected in his gemstone.9

But there wouldn’t be much good reason for that. Aside from the absurdity of the idea, emeralds aren’t that reflective, and they tend to be much smaller than even a compact makeup mirror.

Another theory posits that Nero suffered from poor eyesight. If his emerald were slightly concave, it would have formed a kind of corrective lens so he could better see his warriors.10

But this seems only slightly more plausible than the mirror theory, since corrective lenses wouldn’t really be understood for another thousand years. If Nero did have emerald eyeglasses, he was the only guy who did for a solid millennium.11

What if the emerald wasn’t a corrective lens at all? Modern-day athletes sometimes wear black makeup under their eyes to dull the harsh glare of the sun. Perhaps Nero was doing something similar. In antiquity, emeralds were said to offer rest for weary eyes. Could Nero have been the sartorial pioneer who invented sunglasses?12

Strike three. No supporting evidence for sunglasses exists until at least the 12th century CE, and that’s from China. Besides, ancient Romans already used a different technology to ward off the sun’s harsh rays. It was called a hat.

So what gives? Surely our renowned ancient researcher wouldn’t deliberately lead us astray?

Well, no. Not deliberately. But the world’s first encyclopedia was pretty different from what readers in 2018 would recognize as an encyclopedia. For instance, Pliny had no interest whatsoever in maintaining a neutral point of view. That book on the history of medicine was littered with trash-talk toward doctors who couldn’t even defend themselves on account of being long-dead. Pliny spends most of volume 15 discussing facts and dispelling rumors about olives. And he rounds out the whole thing with a series of best-of lists that would seem rather inappropriate to a modern editor. “Throughout the whole Earth,” Pliny writes, “there is no country so beautiful … as Italy.” Regarding horses, there are “none preferred to those of Italy,” and for precious metals, “Italy was held inferior to no country whatsoever.” Pliny did admit that Spain and India were probably the most admirable coastal countries in the world — except for Italy. 13

Then there’s the matter of some dubious fact-checking. He received much of his information secondhand, which meant that a lot of it was subject to an ancient international game of telephone. In the book covering land animals, Pliny describes the basilisk, the manticore, and the catoblepas — all of them mythical beasts whose most current accurate information can be found in the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. He wasn’t lying, he was just relaying information he heard from a guy who heard it from a guy who heard it from a guy who lived two thousand miles away and died fifty years before.

So Pliny aired some grievances in his encyclopedia, and he may have thought a warthog could paralyze a man with its gaze, and he might’ve had more Italian pride than a New Jersey man at the Columbus Day Parade. But he didn’t include information that was deliberately misleading. And his information about Nero wasn’t secondhand — Pliny was a citizen of Nero’s Rome. So Nero probably did have an emerald for some reason.

Maybe that reason was pure optics. Not the kind that corrects faulty vision, but the optics that determine a celebrity’s public image. We do know that Nero was very concerned with appearances. He may have been an emperor with an unsettling penchant for murder, but he saw himself first and foremost as an artist.

Taking in the day’s blood sport through an emerald monocle is certainly a curious affectation, and probably caused some chatter among the Roman people. It certainly caught Pliny’s attention, and two thousand years later, we’re still here talking about the same thing. Maybe by asking what Nero’s emerald was good for, we’re answering the very same question.

Enrico Fermi was a man who would have made Pliny proud: A man of science, an indisputable genius, and an Italian.

Fermi’s accomplishments were really too numerous and great to cover in this episode. Luckily, he’s one of the few scientists to be honored with a namesake element — so just wait until Episode 100. What’s relevant to our story today is that he was a key player in the creation of the atomic bomb.

One of his contributions to the project was his discovery that beryllium acts as a near-perfect reflector of neutrons. In most scenarios, this property doesn’t matter, but it makes beryllium an excellent material to build a kind of cage around a nuclear reactor. This cage keeps the reaction packed together long enough for things to really heat up.14

Practically overnight, the United States government declared beryllium a “strategic and critical material.”15 The Brush Wellman corporation became one of the government’s favorite contractors, and business boomed near the company’s headquarters outside Toledo, Ohio. During the Cold War, the military built tens of thousands of nuclear warheads,16 and over time, researchers found civilian uses for beryllium, from the automotive industry to personal electronics.

It was a classic American success story: Brush Wellman was founded in 1931 with $500 in capital, and within five decades, it had become a multinational company and the nation’s leading processor of beryllium.17

But amid the fervor to use this new wonder material of the atomic age, certain attributes were overlooked.

Herbert L. Anderson was Fermi’s lab assistant, and he had worked closely with powdered beryllium in the 1940s. It wasn’t long after that he developed a terrible cough, and it clearly wasn’t a mild case of the flu.

Berylliosis is an insidious disease, one that primarily attacks the lungs and can masquerade as tuberculosis, sarcoidosis, and other prevalent lung diseases. Onset can be rapid, or it might be decades before symptoms are visible. The disease is often fatal, but can cause patients to suffer for decades, weakening them over time, eventually leaving them unable to breathe without assistance.

This was Anderson’s ultimate fate. He remained a prolific scientist as beryllium weakened his lungs over the course of forty years. As a colleague said, “He was completely incapable of not doing physics. … He was still working even while bedridden.”18 He died in Los Alamos on July 18, 1988, 43 years to the day after the test detonation of the world’s first nuclear bomb.19

This would be tragic enough on its own — but Anderson was not the only person to work so closely with beryllium. Building all those beryllium components for airplanes, miniaturized electronics, and nuclear warheads required the work of thousands of Americans, and no place employed more than Brush Wellman.

As the years passed, so many workers came down with the same symptoms that the problem could no longer be ignored. Toledo’s hometown newspaper, The Blade, spent 22 months investigating the situation. Over the course of six days in 1999, the paper published nearly two dozen articles exposing how the corporation conspired with the United States government to protect their bottom line. Over that half-century, the workers, their families, and their neighbors were left in a cloud of beryllium dust.20

The Blade’s expose revealed more than neglected safety protocols. The company had actively downplayed the risks of working with beryllium despite possessing ample research to the contrary. They had concealed documents and bought off politicians. Four stories ran under the header, “If you’re a taxpayer, you have contributed to Brush.”

The havoc beryllium wreaked went far beyond the factory walls. The Blade found a woman who was left absolutely crippled by berylliosis despite never having worked on the factory floor. She had merely spent four years as a secretary at Brush Wellman.21 Others were exposed to even smaller amounts of beryllium dust: One woman contracted the disease by cleaning her husband’s clothes. Gloria Gorka merely lived in the same town as a beryllium plant, but came down with berylliosis as well. She died at 7 years old.22

Gary Renwand was a former factory worker who processed beryllium for nuclear weapons. When interviewed for the story, he put it succinctly: “We’re killing ourselves trying to kill someone else.”

The response to the expose was swift and encouraging. By summer of that year, President Clinton submitted draft legislation that would compensate workers who had fallen ill with beryllium disease. Assistant Energy Secretary David Michaels directly credited The Toledo Blade for bringing attention to the issue.23 24 25

This was great progress — but it did nothing for the men and women who still worked with beryllium every day. Regulations remained at the same levels they had been at since the 1940s, and few people wanted to keep talking about a problem that had ostensibly just been solved. Brush Wellman changed its name to Materion.

David Michaels, the Assistant Energy Secretary, was one of the few people to remain committed to the issue. He didn’t let it fade into the background, even as he advanced in his career.

By 2009, he had achieved a lead post at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. For years he worked tirelessly alongside unions, families, doctors, and attorneys, resisting a corporate machine that had been well oiled by the same government that signed his paychecks.

Finally, on January 6, 2017, the federal government issued new safety regulations on beryllium. Regulations on airborne beryllium would be tightened by 90%. Materion claimed that this showed how “industry and labor can collaborate to better protect workers.”26 Michaels took the time to send thank-you notes to his staff. Less than a week later, his term was over, and he left office.27

This would be a satisfying end to this story — if only it were so. Announcing this regulation at the end of the term left it vulnerable. Soon, the situation was again looking grim — not so much for David Michaels, but for beryllium workers.

On the same day Donald Trump was inaugurated president, his administration declared that all new and pending regulations would be immediately frozen. Naturally, this included the recently announced limits on beryllium exposure.28

Months of turmoil followed within the beryllium industry. Workers at some plants went on strike. Surprisingly, a version of the regulation was enacted — but this turn of events has done considerable damage to people’s confidence.29 30 Some question if any amount of exposure to beryllium at all can be considered safe.

Maybe this is the end of the berylliosis saga, but it feels like we’ve been down this road before. Lawyers, executives, and politicians will continue their debates over decimal points and dollar signs. Workers inside the beryllium plants remain hard at work.

Despite its lethality, element 4 is pretty easy to get a hold of, even if gemstones are a little outside of your budget. Beryllium finds its way into a number of consumer products, and as long as it’s not ground into dust — or accelerating a nuclear explosion — it’s not dangerous.

Beryllium’s light weight and surprising hardness make it especially valuable when alloyed with other metals. In particular, a beryllium-copper mixture is eight times stronger than copper alone, and also won’t produce a spark when striking other metals. This makes it an ideal material for tools that are used in hazardous environments, like oil rigs, coal mines, and theoretically, hydrogen-buoyed zeppelins.31

I am aware that an alloy will not suffice for the discerning collector. There are a couple places to turn for a sample of the pure metal, but it might help to be friends with a doctor. Or an airplane mechanic.

As mentioned, a sheet of beryllium foil works as a superb mirror for neutrons. On the other hand, x-rays will pass right through it like it’s nothing at all. This makes it useful in the construction of x-ray machines. It’s one of the few applications where the beryllium is used pure, rather than alloyed with other metals.

One of the other rare applications of pure beryllium is inside gyroscopes that are used in airplanes. Gyroscopes are devices that measure and display their precise orientation in space — something that comes in handy when maneuvering in three dimensions. A beryllium sphere, suspended in a vacuum and spinning 50,000 times per minute, makes for a high-quality gyroscope.32

The problem, of course, is that doctors typically don’t allow their patients to leave with expensive, high-tech medical equipment. Similarly, if you somehow acquired an airplane’s gyroscope, you could cause undue stress for the pilot.

But as your guide on this voyage through the periodic table, I can only take you so far.

Beryllium may taste sweet and sometimes appear gorgeous, but you don’t want to mess around, because it’ll ruin your life and kill you dead. If that makes you uneasy, then you might want to stop collecting elements now — before we get to the really dangerous stuff.

Thanks for listening to the Episodic Table of Elements. Next time, we’ll discover what’s very silly about boron.

Music is by Kai Engel. To learn about Archimedes’ ancient death ray, Nero’s good side, and the cursed 800-pound emerald from the Amazon, visit episodic table dot com slash beryllium.

This is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that you can write your encyclopedia however you want.


  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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