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It's here we find elements at their most elemental, because every nucleus contains protons, and it's the number of protons that determines what kind of element the atom is. Every high school student has seen the elements chart, but author Theo Gray's version is unique: handmade, with each element's identity card meticulously carved into the wood.

One proton is hydrogen; two protons, helium; three protons, lithium; four protons, beryllium; all the way up to element 118, with 118 protons. But, I have to say, I've never completely gotten it right. And if you think about it, the name of each element is the least important piece of information you could possibly have.

Here, at the Cortez Mine, in Nevada, high-tech prospectors are moving mountains, closing in from above and below. Which raises a question: if the gold is invisible to the naked eye, how do they even know if they're digging in the right place? Eight bars, million, sitting on this unassuming little table. Of all the elements that touch our lives, nothing drives humankind to acts of love or destruction like gold. Copper alone is impressive stuff, but when ancient metallurgists combined it with another element, they invented a much tougher material that went on to conquer the world. Tin; symbol Sn; atomic number 50—50 protons and 50 electrons.

If you're like me, you care about the elements and how they go together,… The problem is it's exceedingly rare stuff in the earth's crust, and it's getting harder to find all the time. Mike tells me that each bar represents about a million pounds of rock that had to be moved and processed.

The crack could have been caused by the way the atoms were arranged within the metal. If the metal is allowed to cool, flaws could develop, ruining the bell.

Too much tin, and the copper atoms can't move at all. When the bronze has reached the proper temperature, 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, it's time to pour. Even though the foundry has the technology to precisely control the temperature, and Ralph and his team have decades of experience, bronze remains unpredictable. The bells have to cool for 24 hours, so it's the next day before we can find out if they'll be making music or ending up as scrap. A gleaming chrome, silver magnificent church bell ready for hanging? And now, for the moment of truth: will this bell be good enough to sing? Time to celebrate the millennia-old tradition of bronze.

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Tin is good for a bell, but only in the right proportion.

I wonder, though, if there's a more scientific way to evaluate the metal. First, a polishing wheel gives the bronze a mirror-like finish. We'll have to zoom in a hundred million times to see an atom.

To find out, I'm taking a piece of it to David Muller, at Cornell University. Then the sample is inserted into a powerful electron microscope. To understand the scale, imagine if I were floating in space, 2,000 miles above the earth, looking down at the United States. Now what we're actually starting to see is the microstructure of the grains in that bronze. They are meant to absorb and reflect sound, because the microscope itself is so sensitive that if you were to talk, just the pressure wave from your voice is going to, is going to give enough mechanical vibration to shake this thing around.

Where do nature's building blocks, called the elements, come from? Her job is to figure out how much gold is in them there rocks. I don't see any more rocks in here, but the bad news is, I don't see any gold in here, either. Final steps: cool and clean the bars, stamp them with their unique serial numbers and their weights. The ancients first learned how to heat rocks to extract copper, at least 7,000 years ago. Traders in New York, London and Shanghai buy and sell more than 20 million tons a year. Copper has been prized for millennia for its unique properties: it conducts electricity better than any metal except silver; it's malleable and has a moderate melting temperature; it even scares away bacteria. Even with all the other modern materials available, they still choose bronze. Hasn't something better come along, after all these years? The quality of the sound depends on the atomic structure of the material.

They're the hidden ingredients of everything in our world, from the carbon in our bodies to the metals in our smartphones. The good news is that we haven't finished; there may be still gold hiding in the mix. And, today, it's one of the most widely bought and sold metals in the world. Copper is in wire, electronics and computer chips, plumbing and other building materials. These guys can trade their copper futures; I've got to unload my copper today. In pure metals, the atoms are arranged in orderly rows and columns.




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