Stafford: I thought it was just a cute nickname, but it meant much more


Meg has long worked at a deli I often visit.

The other day, to add a little formality to her name, I called her Megalith, a name I thought added a slight ring of Celtic royalty.

Although I don’t think she was offended, like many of my acquaintances, Meg has developed a keen sense of when to ignore me and focus on others around her.

Still, a few days later, I was glad I’d said it.

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In 35-plus years of writing a weekly column (35 times 52 is 1,820), I have grown used to deadlines sneaking up in the rear view mirror like luxury sedans approaching 30 mph faster than the rest of the traffic on I-675.

But this past week, by the time I checked the mirror, deadline was sitting on my bumper like a Darth Vader luxury SUV (black with black tinted windows) that had just come out of hyperdrive and whose owner apparently believed the luxury package entitled him or her to sole ownership of that stretch of highway.

To put my finger to a more productive use than the one that image suggests, I sat down at the keyboard, pushed the “on” button and started thinking again about the word megalith. As I expected, it took me down an interesting little path.

The lith in megalith actually means stone or rock, and mega means huge, like the big gulp at the convenience mart. Those searching their brains for where they know the word soon will arrive at Stonehenge, the collection of huge stones that still confounds us today. They’re called megaliths.

The liths are so mega, one of the biggest puzzles is how the stones were moved the huge distances they appeared to have been moved without bulldozers, Caterpillars and trains.

Those who study Stonehenge say it might have been built in the Neolithic age, when the Flintstones were around. Neo means new, as in the term “neocon” used to describe the now-older but then-new group of conservative thinkers, or neon, christened as the “new gas” long before it revolutionized advertising signs and inspired DayGlo colors.

So, if Neolithic is the new Stone Age, what is the old one? Paleolithic.

I try to make a point of telling young people I was born during the Neolithic age so they won’t think I was born in the old one. This allows me to assure them the rock I’ve been under while time has passed me by is a relatively new one.

I also remind them that they, like me, live in the lithosphere, the formal name for what’s usually called the earth’s crust or, more poetically, the “sphere of stone.”

I also tell them that my laptop, like most laptops, is powered by – guess what – a lithium ion battery. Lithium, my chemistry teacher unsuccessfully tried to teach me, is the lightest solid element on the periodic table. Also found in the earth’s crust, finding lithium has become increasingly important.

The Wall Street Journal story of Friday, April 13, also reported that lithium’s use in batteries, cell phones and electric cars has caused its price to double in the past two years and create a surge of interest in European mines from which it is extracted.

Three years back, the website “The Universe Today” also reported that the lithium content in stars identifies whether the stars have planets circling them. In stars with planetary systems, the lithium is found on the planets, as it is in ours, and the star has less. That knowledge, the website explains, “Provides astronomers with a new, cost-effective way to search for planetary systems.” High lithium, no planets, low lithium, planets.

As the ancient philosopher Gomer Pyle often said, “Shazam, Goober.”

Just as lithium ions are at the heart of lithium ion batteries, they are key to the effectiveness of the drug lithium, known for lightening the moods of those with bipolar disorders.

Some years back, it took me a while to digest that, number one, the iron in my cereal is from the iron in the planet, which has been absorbed by grains, and number two, that all the iron on our planet was manufactured by exploding stars. Some supply chain.

The fact that we somehow have figured out to use lithium ions in a way that alters human mood seems even more amazing than stars showing up in my bran flakes – and all the more astounding because we are the only species that tweets. At least electronically.



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