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Book Summary: Elemental

Author: Tim James

Substory: Neither Metal Nor Non-metal

A transistor’s job is to let electrical current pass through it sometimes and block it at other times. On its own, this sounds mundane, but get enough transistors hooked up in an intricate pattern and you’ve got a microchip. By programming a series of instructions for these transistors as 1s and 0s, we can tell transistors to switch currents on and off, allowing us to control circuits and store information.

The problem with making a transistor out of metal is that metals always conduct. Similarly, non-metals are always insulators. In order to create something capable of switching on and off at different times you need an element that is halfway between a metal and a non-metal. Enter silicon.

Silicon atoms are large so they’re vaguely metallic in nature, but their shape has more in common with non-metals like carbon and boron. These hybrid properties make silicon a semi-conductor and its crystals form the backbone of transistors.

Not only that, silicon is also the key ingredient in glass, giving us the optical fibers for the internet. Not to mention making windows.

Most optical fibers are made by one company called 3M and their glass is so transparent that, if you were to make the ocean out of it instead of saltwater, you would be able to see to the bottom with perfect clarity.

During the 1950s, after inventing the transistor, William Shockley set up a business in California doing research with the computer science department of Stanford University.

Prior to his invention, all computers were mechanically based and occupied whole rooms. Silicon offered the possibility of computers you could have on your desktop.

Once interest in silicon began to boom so did the local economy, and today Shockley’s neighborhood is the headquarters of Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Intel, Netflix, Yahoo, and Visa. It’s a region of southern San Francisco called the Santa Clara Valley, more commonly known by a name inspired by the element that built it: Silicon Valley.

Silicon enables us to perform calculations that previously took a library of people days to complete and runs everything from our digital watches to our mobile phones, although that technology comes with a moral dilemma tied to a different element—tantalum.

Tantalum vibrates when electrified, making its importance in mobile phones obvious. Seventy percent of the world’s tantalum deposits come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country whose economy is based on its mining and export. The civil war that raged there from 1994 to 2002, the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, was funded through the sale of tantalum. Sometimes our relationship with the elements is ethically quite dark.