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He's offered to show me how the atoms in our bronze stack up, literally. David tells me that when we reach full magnification, we will have images of the actual atoms in the bronze, something few people have ever seen. Zooming in a hundred million times would allow me to pick out, not just a car, but a bug, crawling in the grass next to it. And the brighter colors are things that contain more tin, and the things with less tin are the things that are slightly darker. The microscopic structure of metals is not uniform. Boundaries between grains are actually defects in the orderly arrangement of the atoms. We only have to shake things by an atom for the image to vanish. The actual bronze chip itself is about a hundredth the thickness of a human hair.
I brought you a couple of hunks of bronze, uh, one of which was knocked off of a bell when it was done and one of which is un-poured. I need an area about the size of a farm, and you've given me the whole of the United States. It's too small for us to see, so we have to mount it on a carrier grid, so we can handle it. Like, like, for one thing, I notice they're really, really grid-like.
Every day she receives hundreds of samples of earth taken from the mine. …then pulverized to the consistency of baby powder. But two rows above gold is another metal of antiquity that looms large in our lives: copper; symbol Cu; atomic number 29—29 protons, 29 electrons. Bronze helped to spur global trade, and, once forged into tools and weapons, it played a defining role in the empires of antiquity. I'm here because they're about to cast several bells.
This rock face is about a quarter mile below the surface, and, according to John Taule, it's loaded with gold, somewhere. That's where Gayle Fitzwater and the assay team come in. I think I've seen one of these machines at Starbucks. It is, perhaps, the most emotional of the elements. Tin added in small amounts to copper makes bronze, the first manmade metal alloy. This is The Verdin Company, a 170-year-old family-run business in Cincinnati, Ohio.
About three quarters of the elements are metals, and gold is one of the most standoffish. In copper, they can slide past each other easily, which makes it relatively soft and easy to dent, not right for a bell. Ralph places the form into a circular steel sleeve, then fills the space around it with a mixture of sand and epoxy, to withstand the searing heat of the hot metal. Adding tin to copper during melting changes the properties of the metal.
How an atom reacts chemically depends on how willing it is to share electrons with others, and gold is not very social. So do other so-called "noble" metals: silver, platinum, palladium, osmium and iridium, all located in the same quiet neighborhood of the periodic table. The golden mud goes into a 2,000-degree induction furnace, along with a white powder called flux, chemicals that prevent the molten gold from reacting with or sticking to anything. When this company started, they used a mixture of horsehair, manure and just about anything else that would hold a shape without burning, but the goal was the same: to create a hollow shape that follows the inner and outer perimeter of the bell. The larger tin atoms restrict the movement of the copper atoms, making the material harder.
Theo makes the point by putting me in touch with the real deal. To make the entire table less abstract, he invites me to lay out the rest of his collection of pure elements. This is a visual representation of every single element that makes up this entire planet and everything on it. As we can clearly see, more than 70 percent of the elements on the table are metals, shiny, malleable materials that conduct electricity. Everything from here on over, including the bottom part, is all metals. And down the middle are these, kind of, halfway in between things, which include, for example, semiconductors, like silicon. The one I was looking at, in particular, was calcium. This is when Theo's collection starts to get really interesting, when he pairs the pure elements with their more familiar forms.I wonder, though, if there's a more scientific way to evaluate the metal. First, a polishing wheel gives the bronze a mirror-like finish. We'll have to zoom in a hundred million times to see an atom.To find out, I'm taking a piece of it to David Muller, at Cornell University. Then the sample is inserted into a powerful electron microscope. To understand the scale, imagine if I were floating in space, 2,000 miles above the earth, looking down at the United States. Now what we're actually starting to see is the microstructure of the grains in that bronze. They are meant to absorb and reflect sound, because the microscope itself is so sensitive that if you were to talk, just the pressure wave from your voice is going to, is going to give enough mechanical vibration to shake this thing around.And I wouldn't mind taking a look at these under your magic microscope. Scientists have understood, since the early 20th century, that metals are crystals; that is, they have an orderly arrangement of atoms. They're, they're like a little aerial photo of a planned community. The atoms in our bronze are unusually well ordered.By bombarding samples with x-rays they were able to create shadowy images of that crystal structure, but the idea that we might one day see actual atoms was beyond imagination. Our bell makers must be true masters of their craft.