Word Nerd: 5 kinds of mercury

12 Dec

What an amazing planet we live on! Right now, the Australian bureau of meterology is reporting that it’s pretty hot (highs in the mid-30s Celsius, which is mid-90s Fahrenheit) in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney. Meanwhile, in Canada’s Alberta province, where it’s -17°C (2°F) and snowing, local news media are informing the public on what to pack in an emergency roadside kit and what to do while waiting for a tow truck. Sometimes it seems as though our day-to-day survival revolves around that tiny calibrated glass tube with a bulb full of mercury at one end, invented by the European physicist Daniel Fahrenheit 300 years ago. But mercury is so much more than a means to gauge atmospheric or body temperature!

1. Quicksilver

Mercury is the only metallic element that is liquid at standard conditions for temperature and pressure. Besides thermometers, it’s used in thermometers, barometers, some types of telescopes, and a number of other devices. It’s has long been used in fluorescent lamps, dental amalgam, and various medical compounds, but its medical use has declined because its toxic properties are now widely understood. Mercury is also used in mascara and firearms. Some countries have enacted partial or total bans on mercury because it is toxic.

2. Plants

The genus Mercurialis is a group of eight plant species native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Herb mercury (Mercurialis annua) grows as a weed in cultivated areas and shaded woods. Its stinky cousin, dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) grows wild in European woodlands. Like the metal, dog’s mercury is poisonous to humans and livestock. Symptoms appear within a few hours, and can include vomiting, pain, gastric and kidney inflammation, and sometimes inflammation of the cheeks and jaw and drowsiness.


Mercurialis perennis in Muraste Nature Reserve, Estonia (image by Raimond Raadik, used under CC license)

3. Planet

The planet Mercury’s proximity to the Sun, and its small size, make it difficult to observe. Even so, human beings have observed the planet since at least ancient Assyrian times, 3,400 years ago. In ancient Greece, Mercury was called Apollo when it appeared as a ‘morning star’ just before sunrise, and Hermes when it appeared as an ‘evening star’, just after sunset. This tiny planet has a mindboggling range of temperature, from 427° C (800° F) to -184° C (-300° F), but its low gravitational pull and weak atmosphere mean it essentially has no weather.

4. An ancient god

In the religion of ancient Rome, Mercury was the god of shopkeepers and merchants, travelers and transporters of goods – and thieves and tricksters. He is sometimes represented as holding a purse, symbolic of his role in business. Ancient artists freely borrowed the attributes of the ancient Greek god Hermes, and portrayed Mercury as wearing winged sandals or a winged cap, and holding a caduceus (staff).

Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, at the Grand Central train terminus in New York City (image by Purple74, used under CC license)

Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, at the Grand Central train terminus in New York City (image by Purple74, used under CC license)

5. A modern god

Few people have transcended more boundaries than Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. He was born in 1946 as Farrokh Bulsara, to Parsi (Zoroastrian Indians of Persian heritage) in the sultanate of Zanzibar, which was then a British protectorate. He spent much of his childhood in India, and played the piano in a rock band at his boarding school in Panchgani, Maharashtra. His family eventually settled in England, where Freddie, as he was now known, studied art. He continued to play music, and in the early 1970s, formed Queen. The rest, of course, is history.

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By: BrainGain Staff Writer

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