George Graham

Suddenly Reminded of How Little I Know – and How Much it Matters

rareRemember learning about metals in school? I certainly won’t forget. I got a zero on a paper once because the teacher asked us to describe the effect of water on “some metals.” I wrote about iron becoming rusty, and went into detail about oxidation, adding formulas and everything. The teacher wasn’t interested in rusty iron. He wanted to know about alkali metals like sodium (which fizz and pop – and even explode – when they are dropped into water).

You might be interested in this video showing how they behave:

OK, so you think I’m a nerd, and you are probably right. But I remember things like that.  And I wish more people did. We might be better able to deal with tomorrow’s world.

I was reminded of the gap between the general public’s awareness and the world’s new reality this morning when I read an article in about “rare earth metals.” I had come across the phrase recently in reports describing how China was hoarding these materials and how the rest of the world might wake up one day to confront a crippling shortage of them.

So what? So we need these minerals to make a wide range of products – from TV displays, cell phones and computer hard drives to wind turbines and hybrid electric motors. Today China supplies most of the rare earth minerals used in such products. And its own industrial demands could make it stop exporting them in the next five to ten years.

The article in reveals that there are massive reserves of these metals in the United States, after all. “The U.S. has its own largely untapped reserves that could safeguard future tech innovation,” the author wrote. These reserves are estimated at up to 13 million metric tons. (The entire world produced just 124,000 metric tons in 2009.)

I wonder how many of America’s politicians know about this. And I wonder whether the government is preparing to take advantage of it.  As the article points out, “it would take both time and money for the U.S. to become self-sufficient in producing rare earths.”

According to the article, light rare earths include minerals ranging from lanthanum to gadolinium on the periodic table of elements, while heavy rare earths range from terbium to lutetium. Never heard of them? Nor have I.

And I bet the vast majority of politicians in Washington DC haven’t heard of them, either.

I could be mistaken, of course, but it seems to me that American politicians are – generally speaking – among the most willfully ignorant people in the world. They not only resist information, they encourage the public to do so. Instead, they promote a fascination with the glamor and glitz made possible by the amazing new technologies. And as technology advances, fewer and fewer people become smarter and smarter while the mass of the people sink into a mesmerized stupor.

American mainstream media, meanwhile, pander to the public’s slack-jawed miasma, instead of providing the information needed to function efficiently as a society.

And as the global struggle for survival becomes more intense, the country’s education system becomes ever more focused on “practical” goals. Apparently, the system is designed to train students, not educate them. The likely product will be a robot-like workforce, not an enlightened society.

Yet to survive in an increasingly complex global environment, we must constantly explore new frontiers of knowledge. And it will be up to the nerds to lead the way. It won’t be the politicians – that’s for sure!

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for