• Thermoluminescence, which measures electrons trapped in clays, and electron spin resonance, which involves bombarding a sample with electromagnetic waves and measuring the vibrations of the electrons.-A Short History by Bryson.


  • Avogadro’s Number: the number of molecules found in 2.016 grams of hydrogen gas (or an equal volume of any other gas)= 6.0221367 × 10^23.


  • A German chemist, Justus Von Liebig, had recently noted that powdered bone meal restored vigor to soil. Soaking it first in dilute Sulfuric Acid, he wrote, made it even more digestible. Lawes tried it on a turnip field. He was impressed. Justus Von Liebig is remembered as the father of fertilizer.-The World Without us by Weisman.

  • After realizing what a bother it was for a busy farmer to buy bones, boil the, grind them, then transport sulfuric acid from London gasworks to treat the crushed granules, and then mill the hardened result yet again, Lawes did so. Patent in hand, he built the world's first artificial fertilizer factory at Rothamsted in 1841. Soon he was selling superphosphate to all his neighbors. Lawe’s factories multiplied, and his product line lengthened. It included not just pulverized bone and mineral phosphates, but two N fertilizers: NaNO3 and NH4SO3.-The World Without us by Weisman.

  • Dioxins, however, were unintended: they’re by products formed when HC’s combine with Cl, with tenacious, disastrous results. Besides their role as sex-changing endocrine disruptors, their most infamous application before being banned was in Agent Orange, a defoliant that laid bare entire Vietnamese rain forests so that insurgents would have nowhere to hide.-The World Without us by Weisman.

  • The Haber-Bosch process works by combining N and H gases under immense heat and pressure in the presence of a catalyst. The heat and pressure are supplied by prodigious amounts of electricity, and the H is supplied by oil, coal, or, most commonly today, natural gas- fossil fuels. True, these fossil fuels were at one time billions of years ago created by the sun, but they are not renewable in the same way that the fertility created by a legume nourished by sunlight is. (That the N is actually fixed by a bacterium living on the roots of the legume, which trades a tiny drip of sugar for the N the plant needs).-Omnivores Dilemna by Pollan.

  • The birds (from the Guano Islands off Peru) are attracted by the strong coastal current, which pulls cold water from the depths. Phytoplankton feast on the nutrients that rise with the water. Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton and in turn are the primary food of the anchoveta fish, a cousin to the familiar anchovy. Anchoveta live in vast schools that are preyed upon by other fish. Predators and prey are both preyed upon by the Peruvian booby, cormorant, and pelican. All three have nested on the Chincha Islands for millennia. Over time they have covered the islands with a layer of guano as much as 150' thick.-1493 by Mann.

  • Fertilizer is, at base, a mechanism for providing nitrogen to plants. Plants need nitrogen to make chlorophyll, the green substance in their leaves that absorbs the sun's energy for photosynthesis. Nitrogen is also a key building block for both DNA and the proteins assembled by DNA. Although more than three-quarters of the atmosphere is made up of Nitrogen Gas, from a plant's point of view nitrogen is scarce- the gas is made from two nitrogen atoms that cling to each other so tightly that plants cannot split them apart for use. In consequence, plants seek nitrogen from the soil, where it can be found in forms that they can break down: ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. All are in less supply than farmers would like, not least because bacteria in the soil constantly digest nitrates and nitrites, turning the N back into N gas. Farmed land repeatedly risks N depletion.

  • The Green Revolution after WWII: the combination of high-yield crops, agricultural chemicals, and intensive irrigation.


  • In the late 1700s, a British scientist gave the substance its English name when he noticed it could rub out pencil marks. The Scot Charles Macintosh contributed his name to the language in 1823 when he figured out a mass-production method for doing something long practiced by the Indians of the Americas: applying rubber to cloth to make it waterproof. Sixteen years later, the American inventor Charles Goodyear accidentally spilled sulfur into some hot rubber on his stove. He discovered that the resulting mixture did not turn stiff when cold or smelly and gooey when hot—major problems for those trying to make rubber boots or raincoats before then.-King Leopolds Ghost by Hochschild.

The Atom and the Elements


  • Davy began to bang out new elements one after another—potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, and aluminum or aluminium (depending on which branch of English you favour).1 He discovered so many elements not so much because he was serially astute as because he developed an ingenious technique of applying electricity to a molten substance—electrolysis, as it is known.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • It was Einstein who provided the first incontrovertible evidence of atoms’ existence with his paper on Brownian motion in 1905.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • 1910: Rutherford (assisted by his student Hans Geiger, who would later invent the radiation detector that bears his name) fired ionized helium atoms, or alpha particles, at a sheet of gold foil. To Rutherford’s astonishment, some of the particles bounced back. It was as if, he said, he had fired a 15-inch shell at a sheet of paper and it rebounded into his lap. This was just not supposed to happen. After considerable reflection he realized there could be only one possible explanation: the particles that bounced back were striking something small and dense at the heart of the atom, while the other particles sailed through unimpeded. An atom, Rutherford realized, was mostly empty space, with a very dense nucleus at the centre.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • An electron moving between orbits would disappear from one and reappear instantaneously in another without visiting the space between. This idea—the famous “quantum leap”—is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that the electron is a particle but a particle that can be described in terms of waves.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • There are ninety-two naturally occurring elements on the Earth, plus a further twenty or so that have been created in labs. Oxygen is our most abundant element, accounting for just under 50 per cent of the Earth’s crust.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • He built an artificial cloud chamber—a simple device in which he could cool and moisten the air, creating a reasonable model of a cloud in laboratory conditions. The device worked very well, but had an additional, unexpected benefit. When he accelerated an alpha particle through the chamber to seed his make-believe clouds, it left a visible trail—like the contrails of a passing airliner. He had just invented the particle detector. It provided convincing evidence that subatomic particles did indeed exist.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • While in California Ernest Lawrence at Berkeley produced his famous and impressive cyclotron, or atom-smasher.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • All of these contraptions worked— and indeed still work—on more or less the same principle, the idea being to accelerate a proton or other charged particle to an extremely high speed along a track (sometimes circular, sometimes linear), then bang it into another particle and see what flies off.-A Short History by Bryson.

Hydrogen (H)

Helium (He)

  • Helium, the second most abundant element, had only been found the year before—its existence hadn’t even been suspected before that—and then not on the Earth, but in the Sun, where it was found with a spectroscope during a solar eclipse, which is why it honours the Greek sun god Helios.-A Short History by Bryson.

Lithium (Li)

Lead (Pb)

  • Lead’s symbol is Pb for the Latin plumbum, the source word for our modern plumbing.-A Short History by Bryson.