Monday, September 28, 2009

76. Osmium


Everything Your Mother Wants You to Know about Osmium

Yes, we all know you're terribly talented, dear. But what about osmium?

Osmium is a true cosmopolite. It occurs naturally in platinum-bearing river sands of the Urals, North America, and South America. But, no snob, it is also found in the nickel-bearing ores of Sudbury, Ontario. Nevertheless, it is a natural aristocrat. The metal is lustrous—blueish white, extraordinarily hard, extremely dense, and brittle even at high temperatures. What could be more desirable?

Not that it's the sort to rest on its laurels. Because it has the highest melting point of any element in the platinum group, osmium is used to produce extremely hard alloys for instrument pivots, electrical contacts, and fountain pen tips. No one can accuse it of being a shirker! It is the heaviest natural element, and therefore a solid citizen.

Furthermore, it holds up under pressure. Recently, it was discovered that osmium's resistance to compression is even harder than that of diamond. Think of that! Diamonds are harder, but osmium outlasts them anyway. It's what we call a stand-up guy—a real mensch.

And yet, what is its defining characteristic? When powdered or else heated in air, it gives off osmium tetroxide, which is not only toxic but unendurably smelly as well. So extreme is this stench that the element is even named after it! "Osme" is the Greek word for "odor" or "smell." So this extraordinarily gifted element has to go through life being known as Mr. Stinky.

This is why personal hygiene is so very, very important!

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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