20. Calcium: Stone and Bone

Stories of turning flesh to stone — and vice versa — are common in mythology. With calcium, we see how those same transitions can happen in the real world.

Featured above: Shakespeare Cliff in Dover, England, so named directly because of its association with King Lear.

Show Notes

Podiatric Pedantry: I referenced a certain eight-legged marine animal in the plural as “octopuses,” and I just want to cut off any hypercorrective dogmatists by saying yes, that is correct, and if you want to be extremely technical, “octopi” is actually an etymological abomination. As the OED says:

Although it is often supposed that octopi is the ‘correct’ plural of octopus, and it has been in use for longer than the usual Anglicized plural octopuses, it in fact originates as an error. Octopus is not a simple Latin word of the second declension, but a Latinized form of the Greek word oktopous, and its ‘correct’ plural would logically be octopodes.”

Of course, this podcast is on the record as being strictly anti-prescriptivist, so I’m only addressing the most offensive of word nerds here. “Octopi” is commonly understood to mean “several octopuses,” and is thus perfectly acceptable. “Octopodes,” meanwhile, is commonly understood to mean “I’ve taken my grammar fetish way too far,” and should be avoided in mixed company.

“Winning” A Bet: Our friend Pliny the Elder recounts a colorful tale about this white element in Naturalis Historia. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, sought to impress the Roman politician Marc Antony and wagered that she could throw the most expensive banquet ever given.

Sufficiently intrigued, Antony agreed. The next day, she set before him a meal that was indeed luxurious, but the most expensive banquet in history? Antony thought not.

Cleopatra smiled and silently removed one of her earrings. It was made of an enormous pearl, worth tens of millions of dollars by modern estimations. She dropped it into a glass of vinegar, and with an effervescent fizz, the pearl dissolved in the glass.

She drank the entire thing, and Antony, gobsmacked, knew he had lost the bet, because he was a simpering fool. He should have known better than to engage in an apocryphal battle of wits against Cleopatra.

So Simple A Beginning: In 1868, Thomas Henry Huxley (AKA “Darwin’s Bulldog”) gave a lecture entitled, “On A Piece Of Chalk.” It walked the audience through the entire geological history of England, starting with the famous white rocks of Dover.

It’s often held up as a masterpiece of popular science, being one of the first works of scientific expertise that was intended for a general audience. It’s not quite as clear to the modern reader, but can be read in its entirety online.

I’ve Made A Terrible Mistake: I can almost understand someone performing electrolysis on milk out of curiosity, if they don’t know what to expect. But I’ve watched this video, and I am here to tell you: You shouldn’t. This is disgusting. It’s pretty much like the VHS tape in The Ring and I think now I only have seven days to live.

If that doesn’t deter you, here you go:

Click To Read Transcript


  1. Top Of Show, Theatre Fires Are Not Something That “Used To Happen.” Patrick Hudson, December 31, 2013.
  2. Top Of Show, Theatre Fires Aren’t A Thing Of The Past. Patrick Hudson, December 31, 2014.
  3. Concrete Contractors Association Of Greater Chicago, What’s The Difference Between Cement And Concrete?
  4. Portland Cement Association, How Cement Is Made.
  5. The Independent, Mystery Of 2,000-Year-Old Roman Concrete Solved By Scientists. Harriet Agerholm, July 4, 2017.
  6. History.com, The Secrets Of Ancient Roman Concrete. Sarah Pruitt, June 21, 2013.
  7. The Telegraph, Secret Of How Roman Concrete Survived Tidal Battering For 2,000 Years Revealed. Sarah Knapton, July 3, 2017.
  8. Science Alert, Why 2,000-Year-Old Roman Concrete Is So Much Better Than What We Produce Today. Signe Dean, July 4, 2017.
  9. Encyclopedia Britannica, How A Rejected Block Of Marble Became The World’s Most Famous Statue.
  10. The New York Times, Who Owns Michelangelo’s ‘David’? Elisabetta Povoledo, August 31, 2010.
  11. Encyclopedia Britannica, David. Last updated January 28, 2009.
  12. BBC News, Michelangelo’s David ‘May Crack’. Mark Duff, September 19, 2008.
  13. The New York Times, Bone, A Masterpiece Of Elastic Strength. Natalie Angier, April 27, 2009.
  14. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva.
  15. The Atlantic, A Few Hundred People Turned To Bone. Thomas Maeder, February 1998.
  16. The White House Historical Association, Why Is The White House White?

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