Chemical Poems: Beryllium

Chemical Poems: Beryllium

Author: Mario Markus

To date, 118 chemical elements have been found. Professor Mario Markus, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology, Dortmund, Germany, takes a weekly look at each element in turn, presenting a poem based on its natural properties along with a scientific overview of each element.




Hard and brittle white-gray metal. Density: 1.87 g/cm³. It was discovered by the Frenchman Nicholas Vauquelin in 1798. The name is derived from the Greek beryllos, which is the name of the brilliant and hard mineral beryl, out of which optical lenses were manufactured in ancient times and in the Middle Ages. People called it “magic glass”. During the formation of the universe, the fusion of beryllium with helium produced coal, without which life, as we know it, would not exist.

Beryllium bronze, which is composed of copper and beryllium, has high hardness, corrosion resistance and tensile strength. This bronze is used to manufacture precision instruments, such as springs in watches and gyroscopes [1]. Because of their low density, its alloys are suitable for missiles, space vehicles and satellites. It was used in pure form on the tip of the Saturn V rocket.

Beryllium forms part of several precious and semi-precious stones [2], such as phenakites. The latter exists in a reddish variant, which becomes colorless when exposed to light. Some of its salts have a sweet taste. It was, therefore, originally suggested to call this element “glucinium”, a name coming from the Greek glykys, meaning “sweet”.

Absorption of beryllium into the body can cause berylliosis [3], a chronic disease that can lead to death or invalidity. In fact, the small size of its ions allows them to penetrate into living cells, where their high charge attracts electrons of the DNA and of proteins, thus destroying them. It can also replace magnesium in the body, without taking up its function, and thus disrupt the immune system to such an extent that grains of white blood cells are formed. These grains can be so large that they obstruct the lungs.

[1] L. B. Zhermunskaya, Met. Sci. Heat Treat. 1982, 24, 741–744. DOI: 10.1007/BF00772767
[2] Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Gems and Precious Stones, Simon & Schuster, New York, USA, 1986. ISBN: 9780671604301
[3] J. Schubert, Scientific American 1958, 199(2), 27–33. DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0858-27

Tough athlete,
Figurehead of missiles
nearing us
as sweet,
seafoam white
Eyesight of beryl,
sleeping in stones,
blushing at night-time.
of carbon,
of all
that is life.

On stage: sweet as sugar,
Off stage: merciless

Professor Mario Markus

Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology, Dortmund, Germany.

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The poems have been published in German in:

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