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Stories About Chemistry


33.  One, Two, Three, Many. . .

   That was about what the counting abilities of primeval man amounted to. His mathematical apparatus included only two quantitative magnitudes, namely, "much," and "little."

   People used much the same criterion about a hundred years ago when they tried to estimate the amounts of the separate elements our planet had stored away in its "granaries." For example, lead, zinc, and silver had found wide usage in practice; there was much of them. Hence, these elements were considered abundant. But the rare earths (lanthanides) were rare because they were hardly ever encountered on Earth. There was little of them. See how easy it was to reason only a century ago.

The first inspectors of the chemical element storehouses had an easy job to do. Our contemporaries laugh to think of their "activities."

   And how can they help laughing since they can now state exactly how much there is of everything! If they can even tell how many atoms of each element there are in the Earth's crust. They know for certain that the notorious rare earths are just slightly less abundant in the minerals of our planet than lead, zinc, and silver all taken together.

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