Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: xeni@boingboing.net.

32 Responses to “BB Video + PopSci: Frozen on Video - Theo Gray Sculpts in Solid Mercury, with Some Help from Liquid Nitrogen”

  1. semiotix says:

    tiniest amount of mercury is incredibly toxic to humans.

    Yeah, that’s overkill. Of course mercury is a Bad Thing, toxicologically speaking, but there are plenty of substances that are orders of magnitude worse to ingest or inhale, and some of them may be in your home right now ready to kill your entire family!!! [/local news promo mode]

    Toddlers used to crunch mercury thermometers all the time, and when that happens the real danger is that they’ve swallowed lots of jagged glass that will cut up their intestines. The mercury is something to be dealt with, but not panicked about.

  2. Richard Kirk says:

    There used to be a black and white educational film (can’t find it on YouTube, what the hell, guys?). A man in a suit sits in a giant bath of mercury at a gold mining plant. He is in a suit. He sinks in less than a couple of inches. The narrator tells us ‘you have to be careful to empty your pockets afterwards’.

    Metallic mercury is pretty inert stuff. Mercury salts aren’t good for you, and organic compounds can be lethal, but metallic mercury is pretty inert stuff. I have had a headful of mercury amalgam fillings in the past, and we can eliminate the stuff. However, I knew a lab assistant who got serious DTs and all the signs of classic mercury poisoning. He went into hospital. He got better. He came out. He got ill again. He went back in. This cycle repeated about three times. Eventually, a doctor guessed that he might be carrying around some mercury with him, and had all his clothes swabbed. Apparently, he had got a drop of mercury in his shoe, which formed an amalgam with the head of one of the copper nails holding on the heel. He wore the shoe, and he got slow mercury poisoning. He got ill, went to hospital, but the shoe in his locker, and he got better…

    If you find a spill of mercury, sprinkle sulphur on it. It will react to give mercury sulphide, which you can sweep up.

    (sfx: class bell)

  3. BritSwedeGuy says:

    At school (England, the 70s) we were once given mercury to play with. We’d roll it around the desk etc. We also had loads of uranium oxide and Gamma sources. Kids today don’t know what they’re missing!

  4. Anonymous says:

    While elemental mercury is not a great thing to be eating large quantities of, merely being in proximity to it once in a while is unlikely to cause much harm. Organic mercury compounds can be much nastier.

    For example:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethylmercury

  5. Anonymous says:

    so why doesn’t mercury show up in all the fish in lakes and streams that were prospected for gold?

    It does! See for instance <http://ca.water.usgs.gov/mercury/fs06100.html>.

  6. JayByrd says:

    My dentist gave me a vial of mercury when I was about 8 and I played with it in my hands all the time. (Twitch…)
    I always thought it make the better Dick Tracey murder weapon than ice bullets, since its specific gravity is closer to lead than water. Just pop the bullet mold into the freezer and shoot fast.

  7. arkizzle / Moderator says:

    Sluggo, I genuinely never have an issue with BB vidz, and this one in particular played through perfectly. Not one glitch.

    I dunno what to tell ya..

  8. roryrhorerton says:

    Tiniest amount toxic? What about all the people who used to chug the stuff as medicine? What timescale of toxic are we using?

  9. Theodore Gray says:

    Yes, it’s a bit of overkill to say the tiniest amount of mercury in this form is “incredibly toxic”. But the truth is actually quite subtle, and somewhat more alarming than you might think.

    Yes, you can play with large amounts of mercury without harm. It is said that you can swallow cups full of it and it will pass through without ill effect. (An experiment I am not quite ready to try, as potentially interesting as it sounds. Think of what the end of the experiment must be like. Sorry if you can’t get that image out of your mind now.)

    But that’s liquid metallic mercury. Once mercury gets into the environment it is converted by biological activity into methyl mercury and other organo-mercury compounds that are in fact very toxic, because they can easily cross the blood-brain barrier. As with lead, the neurological damage is subtle, but significant and cumulative, even at extremely, extremely low levels of exposure.

    The problem with spilling a drop or two isn’t immediate: It’s what happens over the next 20 years as that drop slowly evaporates and infuses the air and local environment.

    Having said that, there is general agreement in the reality-based community that EPA cleanup standards for mercury spills are over-blown. Evacuating schools because of a broken thermometer, or tearing down entire houses when a gas meter leaks, is probably not really warranted in most cases. But the mercury sniffers are cheap, widely available, and incredibly sensitive.

    Theodore

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      Elemental mercury is used to weight a certain type of intestinal tube which is used somewhat like a Roto-Rooter snake. It’s inert in the GI tract.

  10. Anonymous says:

    A nitpicky point but this really is casting, not sculpting.

  11. Takuan says:

    so why doesn’t mercury show up in all the fish in lakes and streams that were prospected for gold? Some places you can still find little pools of metallic mercury in the sand and silt under water.

  12. Anonymous says:

    @Sluggo, in fact, mercury is so toxic that even looking at a picture of it online is dangerous. If such a picture appears on your monitor you must immediately obtain a suitable 10-foot pole with which to dispose of the monitor at a proper hazardous waste facility where both the pole and the monitor will be launched into the sun for safe recycling.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Karen Wetterhahn (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Wetterhahn) spilled a drop or two of dimethylmercury on a gloved hand while calibrating an NMR spectrometer. This turned out to be a fatal exposure. People got more serious about testing glove material after that (notice Theo wearing nitrile gloves in the video) as well as avoiding organomercury compounds wherever possible.

  14. IWood says:

    Actually, what Gray said in the video was “even the tiniest spill would be incredibly expensive to clean up.”

    Methinks that the expense of the cleanup is not necessarily a direct correlation to the toxicity of the material involved.

  15. ValuedRug says:

    Anyone know what the music is? Sounds awesome, I need it.

  16. sonipitts says:

    @valuedrug

    The credits say the music is:

    Grid83 Conspiracy
    by The Noizemakerz
    via podsafeaudio.com

  17. Anonymous says:

    All the toxicity stuff discussed above looks about right (I wish discover mag wouldn’t be sloppy and refer to organic mercury compounds as “mercury”, though) but nobody covered mercury vapor, which is the primary reason a lab spill of mercury metal is both a serious health hazard and a major cleanup effort.

    Mercury has a fairly low saturation concentration in air (http://www.ilpi.com/safety/mercury.html says 20 milligrams per cubic meter, 2.4 parts per million) but the vapor is chronically toxic at much lower concentrations — the same site says permissible exposure limit for a 40-hour workweek is 0.05 mg per cubic meter, or 6 parts per billion. Because the saturation concentration is so low, a microscopic bead of mercury – one that fits in the crack between adjacent vinyl floor tiles, for instance – can contaminate a room. And mercury has very low surface tension, which means it splashes out thousands of those microscopic beads if dropped, say, from eye level onto the floor.

    I worked in a chemistry lab in college; we were all trained in the use of the special mercury clean-up kit for tiny spills (like a thermometer break) but we would have been required to evacuate the room and call in the university’s HAZMAT team for anything more than that.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Sculpts? When is pouring a liquid and letting it freeze sculpting? If so I just sculpted some popsicles for me kids.

    @ previous anonymous

    dimethylmercury <> elemental mercury just like how cyanide (HCN, KCN) is different from its elemental counterparts.

    - former chemist

  19. Takuan says:

    sculptors can use whatever means they wish for their art. Founders and casters are tradesmen.

  20. Anonymous says:

    From http://discovermagazine.com/2005/mar/our-preferred-poison :

    “Our Preferred Poison: A little mercury is all that humans need to do away with themselves quietly, slowly, and surely

    “Let’s start with a straightforward fact: Mercury is unimaginably toxic and dangerous. A single drop on a human hand can be irreversibly fatal. A single drop in a large lake can make all
    the fish in it unsafe to eat.”

  21. apoxia says:

    Ah, mercury. Reminds me of when I was 12 and at school and a few of us students were asked to help clean out some old rubbish from a science lab. We found a puddle of mercury in a drawer. My fellow students were happily poking it until I advised them it was highly toxic. It pays to have a chemist/geologist for a father. Good times.

  22. Lobster says:

    Mercury, sweetest of the transition metals! :D

  23. Anonymous says:

    I thought this type of mercury was only bad to ingest. You would have to heat it to get any vapors. Gallium is another cool liquid metal it is solid at room temperature but with a little heat it melts, also non toxic. I think the scenes of the T-1000 reforming in Terminator 2 used a combination of Gallium and Mercury.

  24. arkizzle / Moderator says:

    Is this a room-temperature-metals Blog Post Battle?

    Wow Xeni, you should hear the stuff Mark is saying about you in the other thread..

  25. lejeunerenard says:

    I dont really see the point in doing this, beside it just being fun.

  26. sluggo says:

    I worked at a surplus store that had a giant bottle of mercury, it was heavy as hell. I wanted it bad. This was before mercury was considered so poisonous that you would die if you looked at it.

    OT, but BB’s flash setup makes these movies impossible to watch—it just skips the whole way through it, and I see about 10 frames total. This is on a 1.67 PB with 2 gigs o’ ram.

    Yes, I know I can download it, but that means I’d have to have more than a passing interest to watch.

  27. EdWatkins says:

    Ha, love it!

    Not so long ago (about a decade) at school we used to play with mercury in science club all the time.

    I remember spilling some on the lab floor and trying to mop it up with a paper towel to absolutely no avail. We ended up using a dustpan and brush and sweeping it under a cupboard… it’s probably still there.

    Health and safety *piff* never did me any harm. *twitch*

  28. wil9000 says:

    Uh, shouldn’t this have a standard:

    “Don’t Try This At Home”

    Warning?

    If you just happen to have a big bunch of mercury and a jug of liquid nitrogen sitting around, that is.

  29. mdh says:

    sluggo, arkizzle –

    I have the same problem.

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