Argon


I love archives. I  love the smell of old paper and the thrill of going through old documents and stumbling on a treasure trove of information. I love to look at old photographs and what they tell us about the way people lived and how they thought. And it breaks my heart when I see these wonderful pieces of our history crumbling away through the ravages of pollution, time, and damaging storage environments. An archivist once told me that one day, as he worked among the stacks of an old film collection, he could literally hear the films flaking apart all around him. He said it sounded like it was raining.

Argon is one of the noble gases. As with most noble gases, it is chemically inert and does not form bonds with other elements which makes it an ideal medium in preservation efforts because it refuses to react with any other substance. When the National Archives and Records Administration built the Charters of Freedom display for the  Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in the new rotunda at the National Archives Building in Washington DC, it built argon-filled titanium cases to display these pricelss pieces of our history.

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Cesium

This soft, silver-gold metal has a melting point of 82 degrees F, which makes it one of 5 metals that are liquid near room temperature. One of its distinguishing characteristics is the brilliant sky-blue it emits when burned.

Cesium also decays at an exceptionally stable rate; therefore when the scientists of the world decided to regularize our timekeeping, they turned to cesium. In early definitions, the length of a second was based on calculating fractions of the apparent motion of the earth and sun which they found meant that a second is not always a second–sometimes it’s longer, sometimes it’s shorter. That’s no way to run a universe. So in 1967, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures used an isotope of cesium to help define an unequivocal second: “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.”

Cool.

Cesium is used in atomic clocks. In this piece, I depicted an atomic clock with a kind of steam punk esthetic.

Tantalum

Tantalum is a rare, lustrous, blue-grey metal used as a substitute for platinum in alloys, but its main use is in capacitors used in everything from cell phones to computers. Tantalum is wonderfully chemically inert and does not absorb chemical solutions even when submerged. This characteristic led its discoverer to name it after Tantalus, a figure in Greek mythology who was punished by the gods to spend eternity submerged to the chin in water which would drain away if he tried to drink and tantalised (tantalise=Tantalus, get it?) by ripe figs hanging just above his head which would be blown out of reach if he tried to take one. Horrible fate to spend eternity suffering from unending hunger and thirst, but then Tantalus was a pretty horrible guy. He stole ambrosia from the gods and in exchange, served them dinner he concocted by sacrificing and boiling up his son Pelops. Ugh.

In its natural form, tantalum always occurs with niobium, named after his daughter (who wasn’t much better than her father by all accounts).

Niobium


This element is a rare metal that has many characteristics similar to tantalum and the two always appear together. In fact they are so similar, it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. It was first discovered in 1734 and named columbium by Connecticut governor John Winthrop the Younger. However, because chemists of the time were unable to isolate it from tantalum, they decided it wasn’t an element after all. It was rediscovered in 1844 by Heinrich Rose. Apparently Rose must have been feeling puckish the day he officially named this element, as he decided to change the name from columbium to niobium — making niobium and its close relative tantalum the only father-daughter combination on the periodic table.

In junior high, I developed a fascination with Greek and Roman mythology that continues to this day. I don’t know why because these stories are pretty ghastly. The gods are not nice, people.

The myth of Niobe is particularly beastly. She was the daughter of Tantalus and queen of Thebes. She was a beautiful, proud and fecund woman who you would think would have know better after what happened to her father. At a celebration to honor the demigoddess Lantona, mother of gods Apollo and Diana, she sashayed in to the temple and announced that people were wasting their time worshiping such a weak goddess. Wasn’t she more beautiful? Wasn’t she richer? Wasn’t she more fertile? After all, she had seven sons and seven daughters instead of only one. Why were they wasting their time worshiping such a puny little person? Apparently the Thebans couldn’t think of a good reason so they left the temple with the ceremony unfinished.

Of course, the gods did what the gods do — they smote her. Each of her children died a horrible death at the hands of Apollo and Diana, until Niobe desolate and immobile with grief, turned to stone.

The moral of the story is, don’t mess with the gods. I’m just saying.

Molybdenum

Molybdenum is a grey metal added to steel to give it strength. I had an ulterior motive in selecting this element. (Well, two actually. I just plain like the word – it’s so silly sounding.) But principally I wanted to resurrect an earlier project which I was never happy with.  It was supposed to be a depiction of Pele’ – a face emerging/fusing with a molten lava flow. But frankly, although I loved the lava part the face always gave me the creeps. So I took the advice of a quilting friend who told me if I was that unhappy, I should whack it up and make something else with the parts I liked. So I did. Here you go. Silvery grey molybdenum melting in with iron, carbon and other elements to form incredibly strong steel. And I love it this time.

Dysprosium

I chose this element because it’s the name of the street my mother lives on. She lives in one of those modern developments where all the streets are named after metals in an attempt to give it some order and create some sense of neighborhood. It would seem like having a grand plan means it would be laid out logically but it’s a nightmare getting anywhere. The street names change at random cross sections and the developers threw  in cul-de-sacs and streets that don’t really lead much of anywhere. Imagine me laughing my head off when I learned the name Dysprosium comes from the Greek roots “hard to get at”.  I don’t know if the city planner who named this street had a puckish sense of humor (hard to believe) or if it was serendipity. Anyway, a labyrinth seemed an appropriate expression of the hard-to-get-at-ishness of the element. And of my mother’s house.

Helium

I pouted when I got helium. Balloons – boring. Blimps – yawn. What else could I use as an image to communicate the properties of helium? Lighter than air is tough as a visual image. So I did a little digging. Helium heads up the noble gas group on the table. It has the lowest boiling and melting points of any element. While rare on earth, it makes up 24% of the mass in our galaxy, second only to hydrogen – bingo! There’s my image. The idea that space is full of helium triggered my love of the enhanced space images from the Hubble telescope.

This close-up shows the design created by first discharging, then painting, dyeing, and embellishing what was originally a solid navy fabric. As the image grew, I loved it more and more. The last step after quilting was to throw a spangle of sparkling sequin stars across the firmament.