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15 Is Flammable

Number 15 on the periodic table of elements is phosphorus, which means “light bringer” in Greek. The scientist who bestowed that name upon it in 1669 (in response to discovering that white phosphorus glows faintly in the presence of oxygen) produced the first batch of this element for study by extracting it from a series of 60 buckets of urine. So ponder that situation next time you think your job sucks. Another early source of phosphorus was bone ash, which also sounds like something you’d work with under less than ideal conditions. (“Oh, there is some lovely filth down here!”) Now it is mined from phosphate rocks, but maybe they should just leave it in the ground. White phosphorus is used in things like explosives and nerve gas, and is so flammable and so unstable that  “wounds contaminated by white phosphorus can reignite days later when bandages are removed.” That is MESSED. UP. So let’s get back to the urine part, which in contrast is now a far more pleasant topic. The following paragraph will return our minds to far more pleasant imagery. Enjoy!

English: A chunk of white phosphorus in water

STAY AWAY FROM THIS: A chunk of white phosphorus in water (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

German alchemist…Hennig Brand experimented with urine, which contains considerable quantities of dissolved phosphates from normal metabolism…Brand attempted to create the fabled philosopher’s stone through the distillation of some salts by evaporating urine, and in the process produced a white material that glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly. It was named phosphorus mirabilis (“miraculous bearer of light”). His process originally involved letting urine stand for days until it gave off a terrible smell. Then he boiled it down to a paste, heated this paste to a high temperature, and led the vapours through water, where he hoped they would condense to gold. Instead, he obtained a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark. (Source)

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