Friday, September 29, 2017

the last book I ever read (The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, excerpt eight)

from The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan:

He was convinced that what he had in his glassware was the philosopher’s stone, a mythical substance alchemists believed could convert base metals into gold and silver. What he found, it turned out, couldn’t make lead glitter. So his glowing nuggets were only a curiosity used to wow theatergoers and stoke the jealousies of fellow alchemists who could not figure out how their rival acquired such a magical substance.

Rival laboratorians eventually learned how to produce their own phosphorous and within a century the source material for the element became human and animal bones and teeth. Later, rocks rich in phosphates, which is a form of salt containing phosphorous, would be mined and processed for the mineral that doctors came to believe could cure everything from impotence (it couldn’t) to tuberculosis (it couldn’t) to depression (it couldn’t) to alcoholism (it couldn’t) to epilepsy (it couldn’t) to cholera (it couldn’t) to toothaches (it couldn’t).

But as the centuries would unfold, it turned out phosphorous did make a hell of a lethal rat poison, a spectacularly combustible match tip, a dastardly battlefield gas and, in an unlikely twist of history and fate, a wicked class of incendiary bombs dropped by the Allies in World War II that killed tens of thousands of Germans in phosphorous’ own hometown, Hamburg.

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