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Mercury: the strangest metal of all

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1. another name for mercury

2. rapid or unpredictable in movement or in change: a quicksilver temper

[Old English, from cwicu alive (see quick) = seolfer silver. Literally, “live silver”


When I was in high school, there was a rumor that a kid several years ahead of us had committed suicide by sucking the mercury out of a thermometer. When a rumor is scary enough, you don’t bother to verify it, you just duck your head and run in the opposite direction. Ever since then, like many people, I have had a strange fascination with the substance.

Mercury is a study in contradictions. It is known for its toxic properties but has been prescribed through the ages as a healing substance; it is a heavy metal that is actually a liquid at room temperature. Mercury has always been revered for its shape-shifting properties that was considered the primordial metal, and the key that could unlock all the mysteries of alchemy.

Mercury shines like a mirror, it conducts electricity and in spite of the fact that it’s a liquid, it is a metal. In fact, it is a heavy metal, 13.5 times more dense than water.

This means that you could build a reflecting pool out of mercury. It has in fact been done. A mercury fountain was constructed for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, and in Spain large reflecting pools were filled with mercury to allow Caliphs to gaze at their reflections.

This also means that if you tried to jump into a pool filled with mercury, your bones would actually break. However, if you stepped into it, you could walk on its surface, sinking only about an inch with each step. If you were so inclined, you could also use it as a surface for billiards or a pool table, since the balls would only sink a fraction of an inch.

Mercury vapors are extremely toxic. This became evident in the 19th century when the makers of felt hats, who used mercuric nitrate in their trade, started exhibiting a huge array of strange behaviors. Hence the term, “mad as a hatter”.

Mozart may have died from mercury poisoning as well, at the young age of 35. Not because of making hats, but because like many rock stars, he was a major womanizer. Syphilis was common in his time, and the only treatment for it consisted of large doses of mercury, administered in a variety of ways. Because mercury has anti-bacterial properties, it may have even worked as a cure – unfortunately, at the loss of the patient. If you’ve ever heard of the saying “a night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury”, now you know where it comes from.

Mercury has many valuable uses. It is used in electrical devices around the world. Despite its toxicity, there is little evidence that its use for dental fillings have done any harm. Mercury compounds exist even in modern medicine. It also happens to dissolve aluminum. In World War II, it was rumored that allied spies spread a paste of mercury on the wings and fuselages of German fighter planes, causing them to fall apart in midair.

As far as whether mercury from a thermometer could kill someone, the best answer I could find to this question is “no”. Apparently it would just go right through someone and come out the other end. Whether that amount would be enough to cause psychiatric disturbances is a moot point, since you’d have to be crazy to try it in the first place.

-Anja Wulf

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