11. Sodium: What’s In Na?

Turns out ancient sages and seers might’ve actually known a thing or two. Also, is there a good reason for sodium’s chemical symbol? Na.

Featured Above: The Third Key of Basil Valentine, featuring the introduction of an eagle to an old dragon.

Show Notes

It’s Not A Very Funny Blooper Reel: Around 16:20, I mention that Berzelius thought the existing system of chemical symbols was “needly” expensive. Apparently, I was so focused on the correct pronunciation of “Jons Jacob Berzelius” that I completely dropped a syllable from the plain old English word, “needlessly.” By the time I caught the error, I didn’t have time to re-record! My apologies.

There’s Always YouTube: Playing with metallic sodium sounds like a fun time, but it’s worth underscoring that it’s very, very dangerous. For one thing, submerging it in water produces a lot of smoke to accompany the explosion. Theodore Gray notes,

I’m not sure what the smoke is, but I suspect it’s powdered soda lye (caustic soda, otherwise known as sodium hydroxide), which means you really, really don’t want to get in the way of it. … if it is powdered soda lye it would severely burn your eyes, lungs, and skin, and no safety glasses would protect you.”

Someone else wrote in to explain how playing with sodium left him permanently blind in one eye.

Maybe just stick with the sodium vapor lamp for your collection.

RIP: One of the most notorious salt tax in history was the gabelle, a French tax that lasted for a few centuries. One of its enforcers was the previously mentioned Antoine Lavoisier, though the gabelle died around the same time he did — and for the same reasons, too.

Many of the historical figures we call chemists saw themselves as alchemists. Science is a process! and it didn’t just start in the 17th century.

Lab-Grown Diamonds Are Much Most Cost-Effective: It turns out that the transmutation of lead into gold is technically possible, using state-of-the-art technology. I don’t believe it’s ever actually been done, but in the 1980s, scientists carried out the (easier) transmutation of bismuth into gold.

But just because it’s possible doesn’t make it wise: Considering all the work and energy that goes into the process, it wound up costing about a quadrillion dollars per ounce.

An extract and symbol key from Kenelm Digby’s A Choice Collection of Rare Secrets, 1682

Signs And Symbols: The above image shows off a small selection of alchemical symbols, as well as an example of chemical writing. Being written about a century after Valentinus’ work, it’s much closer in tone to what we could recognize as scientific language, but still a bit curious.

Now That’s Teamwork: The substance created by Valentinus’ poetic process is called, appropriately, aqua regia, meaning “royal water.” Chemically speaking, it’s a 3:1 mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, and the way it breaks down gold is rather fascinating.

Neither nitric acid nor hydrochloric acid is capable of dissolving gold by itself — they must work together to break down the noblest of metals. To simplify a bit, the nitric acid dissolves a small amount of gold, but is quickly saturated. Meanwhile, the hydrochloric acid combines with the dissolved gold, pulling it out of solution and allowing the nitric acid to break down more gold. The hydrochloric acid then pulls that gold out of solution, and so on.1

Larry Principe And The Philosopher’s Tree: Larry Principe is a scientist who’s spent years digging into alchemical texts to see what the authors might have really been getting at. He found that one experiment, creating a tree of gold from a metal seed, was actually quite possible — although not quite what it sounds like at first. Chemical & Engineering News has the full story and some interesting photographs.

I Wasn’t Kidding: The process described to isolate metallic sodium from lye is, perhaps obviously, not something that was pioneered by me. Nonetheless, it’s not only theoretically sound — it’s empirically proven. Thank you to YouTube channel NurdRage for doing the hard work:

The End: With apologies to the brilliant Tom Lehrer.

Click To Read Transcript


  1. ScienceABC, What Is Aqua Regia? How Does It Dissolve Gold?
  2. Theodore Gray, Sodium Party. I’m not sure, but I think this web page was published around February 7, 2003, based on its availability on archive.org.
  3. Asia Times, A Brief History Of Chinese Salt, The World’s Oldest Monopoly. Johan Nylander, January 4, 2017.
  4. Kiwi Hellenist, Salt And Salary: Were Roman Soldiers Paid In Salt? Peter Gainsford, January 11, 2017.
  5. The Atlantic, Whales And Dolphins Can Taste Only Salt. Polly Mosendz, May 31, 2014. The fact that this was published in The Atlantic seems too perfect!
  6. The Boston Globe, Good As Gold: What Alchemists Got Right. Stephen Heuser, March 15, 2009.
  7. The Secrets Of Alchemy, p. 147-149. Lawrence Principe, 2013.
  8. Smithsonian Magazine, Alchemy May Not Have Been The Pseudoscience We All Thought It Was. Richard Coniff, February 2014.
  9. Royal Society Of Chemistry, Periodic Table Of Alchemy.
  10. Elementymology & Elements Multidict, Development Of The Chemical Symbols And The Periodic Table. Peter van der Krogt.
  11. Jons Jacob Berzelius, Essay On The Cause Of Chemical Proportions, And On Some Circumstances Relating to Them: Together With A Short And Easy Method Of Expressing Them. Annals Of Philosophy 2, p. 443-454, 1813.
  12. Elementymology & Elements Multidict, Natrium/Sodium.

3 Replies to “11. Sodium: What’s In Na?”

  1. You ought to do an article about potassium chloride vs sodium chloride.

    Why the first can be an excellent alt substitute, but a lot of people can differentiate. they are close on the periodic table, andone is heavier, but I don’t get why one is healthy, why my wife can differentiate the tastes, but I cannot, etc. that would be a good read.

    1. I like that suggestion! I think I will include that as a topic of conversation for the episode on potassium. Thanks for reading the blog, and taking the time to comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *