An artist's rendering of the rover for the 2020 Mars mission.

Element Update: Land Matters

Regardless of which planet we’re on, the elements under our feet are pretty important.

Featured Above: Concept art for the rover that will set course for Mars approximately one year from now. NASA has more information on the exciting mission!

It’s been ages since I’ve posted an element update, hasn’t it?! Well then, let’s waste no time.

First up is magnesium with kind of a bummer: Recent analysis of the martian soil shows that high levels of magnesium perchlorate make it a very hostile environment for microbial life. It’s starting to look like the surface of Mars is not a place we should expect to find extraterrestrial life.

However, there’s also been a recent spike of methane in the red planet’s atmosphere. The deal with carbon-rich methane is that it doesn’t last very long, especially in an environment that gets so battered with UV rays. (See iron for more on that!) The implication is that something is creating a fresh supply — probably somewhere deep below the surface, where it could still be warm from geological activity. And away from those nasty perchlorates, of course.

While studying oxygen, we noted that Maria Goeppert-Mayer was the second of only two women to ever win the Nobel Prize in physics. Well, since that episode aired, a third woman has won that prize! Congratulations to Donna Strickland for winning the 2018 Nobel Prize In Physics for her work with chirped pulse lasers! Over in the Chemistry category, Frances Arnold became the fifth woman to win that Nobel Prize for the same year.

The Chrysler Building got plenty of attention in our episode about chromium. Well, sometime this year (possibly already!) that building will be sold — and at an incredible loss. The RFR Holding LLC is picking it up for the bargain-basement price of $150 million. When it was last sold, eleven years ago, the Abu Dhabi Investment Council paid $800 million. So why the discount? Well, apparently it’s possible to own a building and yet not own the land it sits upon. Whomever holds the Chrysler Building is required to pay Cooper Union $32.5 million per year for the privilege of existing on their dirt.

Incidentally, this isn’t only a problem for the ultra-wealthy who purchase landmarked buildings. Warren Buffett’s Clayton Homes company has spent the past several years exploiting the same kind of loophole to wring money out of people who own mobile homes. If you can spare 15 minutes, John Oliver did a good segment on the issue.

On a lighter note (heh), helium is apparently no fan of Apple. MRI machines require helium to operate, and during a recent installation of such a device, about 40 iPhones, watches, and iPads went completely kaput. Helium atoms are very small, of course — small enough that if enough of them bounce around inside an iPhone, they’ll completely trash the place. To learn the nitty-gritty details, and why Android phones were unaffected, check out the aforelinked iFixIt article.

Last but certainly not least, Episodic Table listener Jenni Gibson was enjoying a road trip through Europe this summer when she came upon the Trinkhalle in Baden-Baden, Germany. For centuries, the waters there have been said to possess “healing powers.” Perhaps that has something to do with this?

An engraving on the side of the Trinkhalle that reads in German, ""Lithium- and Arsenic-containing saline thermal spa."
Photo courtesy Jenni Gibson

Roughly translated, that reads, “Lithium- and Arsenic-Containing Saline Thermal Spa.” That tracks! Coincidentally or not, we mentioned the restorative powers of certain elements in the episodes on both lithium and arsenic.

Huge thanks to Jenni Gibson for sending this along and generously allowing me to share with you. That sort of thing is great, by the way! I would love to hear about your encounters with the elements out in the wild. Drop me a line at — maybe it’ll motivate me to post element updates more frequently!

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