3. Lithium: The Element of Surprise

We cautiously approach this explosively reactive element and learn about its surprising ability to stabilize moods, with a brief foray into Bolivian economics along the way.

Featured above: Salar de Uyuni, the flattest place on earth. It happens to be loaded with lithium. Photo by Martin St-Amant – Wikipedia – CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Show Notes

Splitting Hairs: If you remember from last week’s episode, splitting a hydrogen nucleus is usually like dividing by zero: You can talk about it, but it doesn’t make much sense. A hydrogen nucleus typically consists of only a single proton, and that can’t really be “split” in the sense that we usually mean when talking about this kind of thing.

Sometimes a hydrogen atom includes one or more neutrons; these variants are known as isotopes. We’ll cover them more in-depth later, most likely in episode 6, carbon.

Metal As Hel(ium): Incidentally, although hydrogen is often included as part of group 1, it is not an alkali metal. But it may exist in metallic form! Theoretically, it would take extremely high pressures to create metallic hydrogen, and it just might exist in Jupiter’s core. In January 2017, scientists made waves when they claimed they had created a sample here on earth… but as time passed, this claim has been met with increasing skepticism.

Must Be This Tall To Ride: Lithium is one of a small number of elements that can’t be created by stellar fusion. Hydrogen combines into helium, then helium atoms fuse together to create carbon and oxygen (usually). Lithium, beryllium, and boron get skipped right over — and if they do somehow find themselves inside a star, they get shredded into helium atoms.

Saltswater: Lithium, sodium, and potassium all readily form salts with chlorine — so it should come as no surprise that sodium and potassium sit directly underneath lithium on the periodic table.

Lunar Legend: I read from many, many sources that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he gazed at Earth and took particular note of Salar de Uyuni, mistaking it for a glacier. I’m pretty sure this is nothing more than legend, probably dreamed up by a creative Bolivian tour guide.

Earthrise, as seen from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968. Click for big, and just try to find Salar de Uyuni in this photograph, I double dare you.

First of all, nobody ever referenced where this story originated from. It was always, “Rumor has it that…” or, “Supposedly…” which is usually a red flag. I eventually went to the most primary source I could find: NASA’s transcript of air-to-ground voice transmissions for the Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong talks about a lot of stuff, and all the hits are in there, like “The Eagle has landed,” and “That’s one small step for (a) man…” and plenty of chatter about South America, but I could find absolutely zilch that referenced Salar de Uyuni.

And I think it would be nigh impossible to spot the salt flat from the moon anyway, despite its size. NASA put together an incredible visualization of what Earth would ideally look like from the surface of the moon, and even then, you know what would make it difficult to spot a specific patch of bright whiteness on Earth? Clouds. Lots of clouds. Salar de Uyuni would be covered by clouds or surrounded by clouds or just look like a dang cloud.

This is T. R. Appleton, reminding you to check your sources.

When Imperialism Becomes Awkward: Along with all the other natural resources native to Bolivia, one of their most profitable crops is the coca leaf. Indigenous Bolivians have been harvesting coca for thousands of years, using it in food, as a tea, and as something to chew on for a mild stimulating effect, a lot like coffee. It can also be refined into pure cocaine.

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency, in particular, has historically been very concerned with the Bolivian coca industry, and this history further reinforces the Bolivian skepticism of outside interests. This distrust manifests in ways that are every bit as personal as they are political.

In 1988, Bolivian cocaleros were protesting the government’s use of herbicide to destroy their crops. To break up the protest, agents from the United States’ DEA and Bolivia’s Rural Area Mobile Patrol Unit (UMOPAR) murdered eleven people and injured at least 100 more.

Evo Morales was a leader of the cocaleros union and gave a speech commemorating the massacre in 1989, its one-year anniversary.

The next day, UMOPAR agents beat him and left him for dead on the side of a mountain.

Morales survived the attack, and in January 2006, he was inaugurated President of Bolivia. This is the man whom foreign companies must petition, requesting limitless access to the world’s largest lithium reserves.

You can see why he might not be so keen on the prospect.

I’m Sure It’s All Above Board: In recent years, there’s been renewed interest in another country that’s unbelievably rich with minerals, including lithium: Afghanistan. The presence of precious materials has been known for decades; the motivation behind this resurgent interest has been left for the reader to decide.

Finding Finding Sanity: There appears to be a thorough and entertaining telling of John Cade’s life in the book Finding Sanity: John Cade, Lithium, And The Taming Of Bipolar Disorder, by Greg de Moore and Anne Westmore. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on it in time for this episode, but de Moore and Westmore’s research did inform some of this episode.

It Was Inside Us All Along: Lithium has actually played a role in mental wellness for thousands of years — we just weren’t really aware of it. For one thing, no one knew what lithium was until the 19th century. But for a long time, people who live near mineral springs have sworn that their waters have a calming effect on the mind and body.

In the second century CE, a physician named Soranus of Ephesus treated people with drinking water that was naturally high in alkaline salts. More recently, actual scientific studies have discovered that locations with abnormally high concentrations of lithium in their drinking water also have a correspondingly low suicide rate.

The levels of lithium tend to be much lower than the concentrated dosages prescribed in psychiatry, and these waters don’t carry a risk of lithium toxicity. For these reasons, some doctors propose that a small amount of lithium should be seen as an essential mineral.

I’m no doctor and am explicitly not endorsing this, but there’s a company in Lithia Springs, Georgia that would happily sell you some of their “legendary healthful water.”

And I Do Mean Mundane In The Most Literal Sense: For as fascinating as lithium is, its discovery was highly mundane. Johann August Arfvedsson discovered the element in 1817. Unlike sodium, which had a known presence in animal blood, and potassium, which was found in plant ashes, Arfvedsson found this alkali metal inside of a rock. So the element’s name comes from the Greek word for stone, λίθος, aka lithos. Rock-Stuff: We Found It In Rocks!®

A Different Kind Of Rock Connection: Karl Marx is a man whose work is often misunderstood, and often deliberately. One of his most notoriously misunderstood quotes is, “Religion is the opium of the people.”

Some people — often teenagers and others trying to be edgy — take this quote out of context to mean something like, “Religion is just a delusion, maaan!” This is not remotely close to what Marx was getting at.

See the full quote:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”1

It’s pretty clear that he’s speaking more of the analgesic properties of opium rather than any hallucinogenic effects (which opium does not produce). Religion relieves people’s pain.

It is true that Marx was an atheist, but that doesn’t mean he was a jerk.

Anyway, one person who appears to have accurately understood the quote was Kurt Cobain, frontman for 90s grunge band Nirvana. Cobain wrote a song about a man whose girlfriend dies, and he turns to religion for relief. “I’ve always felt that some people should have religion in their lives,” Cobain said in an interview. “That’s fine. If it’s going to save someone, that’s okay. And the person in that song needed it.”

But this was the 1990s, not the 1840s, so “the opium of the people” needed an update. The song’s title was Lithium.

Leave This To The Professional Amateurs: Finally, I promised a video of someone disassembling a lithium battery to get at the prize inside. Please consider this more of a vicarious experience than a tutorial.

Click To Read Transcript


  1. Introduction, A Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right. Karl Marx, 1843.
  2. Wired, Zounds! We’ve Split The Atomic Nucleus. Randy Alfred, April 13, 2008.
  3. Cern Courier, Cockcroft’s Subatomic Legacy: Splitting The Atom. December 2007. Originally from cern.ch, backed up on this site for archival purposes.
  4. Nature, Artificial Production Of Fast Protons and Disintegration Of Lithium By Swift Protons. J. D. Cockcroft and E. T. S. Walton.
  5. Award Ceremony Speech for the Nobel Prize in Physics. Professor I. Waller, 1951.
  6. Conde Nast Traveler, This Remote Salt Flat Is Also The Flattest Place On Earth. Ken Jennings, July 28, 2014.
  7. Nature, The Salt Flat With Curious Curves. Eric Hand, November 30, 2007.
  8. SciShow, Why Are Smartphone Batteries Combusting? September 23, 2016 on YouTube.
  9. The Guardian, Electric Car Boom Fuels Interest In Bolivia’s Fragile Salt Flats. Max Opray, January 17, 2017.
  10. Financial Times, Electric Car Demand Sparks Lithium Supply Fears. Henry Sanderson, June 8, 2017.
  11. The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History, Potosi Mines.
  12. Journal of World History, Vol. 6, No. 2. Born With A “Silver Spoon”: The Origin Of World Trade In 1571. Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, 1995. Originally from hawaii.edu, backed up on this site for archival purposes.
  13. Encyclopedia Britannica, Potosi. Last updated September 19 2013.
  14. Local Histories, A History Of English Population. Tim Lambert.
  15. Asian Topics In World History, The Silver Trade, Part 1. Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong.
  16. The Guardian, Bolivia’s Cerro Rico, ‘The Mountain That Eats Men,’ Could Sink Whole City. Sara Shahriari, January 10, 2014.
  17. The New Yorker, Lithium Dreams. Lawrence Wright, March 22, 2010.
  18. Deutsche Welle, Bollivia’s Evo Morales Plans Lithium Mining Offensive. Srinivas Mazumdaru, July 17, 2017.
  19. ABC Radio National, Remembering John Cade, The Australian Doctor Who Tamed Bipolar Disorder. Nicola Harrison, September 9, 2016.
  20. ABC News, Fall Of Singapore Anniversary: How A Military Defeat Changed Australia. Michael Rowland, February 14, 2017.
  21. Australian War Memorial Encyclopedia, Changi.
  22. Psych Central, Spending Sprees In Bipolar Disorder. Jane Collingwood, last updated July 17, 2016.
  23. The New York Times, Patient Voices: Bipolar Disorder. Karen Barrow, March 21, 2017.
  24. Psychology Today, “Spirit Possession” And Mental Health. Graham C. L. Davey, December 31, 2014.
  25. PsychiatryOnline, John Cade And Lithium. Garry Walter, July 1, 1999.
  26. John Cade’s original scientific paper explaining the guinea pig trial is fully available for free. I found it at nih.gov, and I’ve backed up the PDF on this site for archival purposes.
  27. The Weekend Australian, Bipolar Disorder And Depression: John Cade And The Case For Lithium. Derek Parker, September 24, 2016.
  28. This quote is directly from Cade’s landmark medical publication referenced earlier.
  29. Medline Plus, Lithium Toxicity. Last reviewed October 13, 2015.
  30. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Toxtutor: Learn Essential Principles of Toxicology. Or if you can speak German, here’s the primary source: Die dritte Defension wegen des Schreibens der neuen Rezepte, Septem Defensiones 1538. Werke Bd. 2, Darmstadt 1965, p. 510. “Alle Dinge sind Gift, und nichts ist ohne Gift; allein die dosis machts, daß ein Ding kein Gift sei.”
  31. Snopes, Origins Of The 7Up Soft Drink Name. David Mikkelson, April 28, 2014.
  32. Health & Drugs: Disease, Prescription, Medication, by Nicolae Sfetcuq.

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