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Mercury in Fact and Fiction

Quicksilver - The Element Mercury

Mercury, the element acquired the name "quicksilver" because of its liquid, fast flowing properties. It is highly reflective, and its way of moving at the slightest touch give it a quality of almost being alive. In a previous age, the word "quick", was used to refer to things that were alive, not just things that were "fast". (This is why we still hear references to "the quick and the dead".)

Mercury is the only metal that, at room temperature, remains a liquid. It does not become a solid until it gets down to -38.72 degrees centigrade. This means that it can be frozen with dry ice. Yet it is still a brittle metal, even in its solid state. This is because Mercury does not like to bond with itself, and is highly resistant to bonding with other elements. Mercury will form a gas at 357 degrees centigrade. In its vaporous state it makes very good light when heated with an electrical charge. Mercury vapor lighting is common in street lights and hallways.

Number 80 on the periodic chart, Mercury is right next to gold. Alchemists of a previous age commonly associated quicksilver with that precious metal. The easiest way to get pure mercury is to extract it from the mineral, cinnabar. Alchemists would heat up a piece of cinnabar (mercury sulfide) and the mercury would seem to simply ooze from the rock. A demonstration of this process to patrons could help convince them that gold might indeed be manufactured from a bar of lead!

A fairly dense metal, mercury is 13.6 times heavier than water. Its density means that heavy objects, which are less dense, can easily float on top of it. For example a brick or a billiard ball that would plunge to the bottom of a container of water will skim about lightly on a container of mercury. Mercury in its pure state is seldom found just lying about. Like water it "evaporates" (though more slowly). In the air it is much more dangerous than in its liquid state.

The chemical symbol for mercury is "Hg". This is derived for the Latin name hydrargyrum or "water silver". It is not magnetic at all, which means that a spill cannot be cleaned up with a magnet. Mercury is used in vermillion paint pigment, lighting, batteries and some limited medicines. Yet mercury does have a serious downside. It is a poison.

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