Element Collecting – The Ingredients of our Universe

The Universe

This week, I learn about the hobby of collecting, why we collect from a psychological and neurological perspective, and get sucked into element collecting the 118 known elements in our universe.

Collecting as a hobby

Collecting things seems to be one of the most popular hobbies.

Why do we collect things? Is it to preserve the past? Is it the joy of the quest to collect that may never be completed? What’s the difference between collecting and hoarding?

I read a few psychological journals and blogs to figure out what’s behind it. Here’s what I found:

The Freud school of thought obviously has to do with poop and the need to exert control of the loss of things.

A more positive school of thought is the pride that is felt from collecting things and completing sets. Sometimes this comes with recognition or ranking amongst collectors.

There is also the thrill of the chase, which can have a certain “outwitting other collectors” aspect to it.

There is a case for collecting being stimulating intellectually from learning about the objects, their origins, where to find them, etc.

Neurologically, MRIs pick up a lot of activity in the pleasure centres of the brain when a collector is anticipating collecting their next time.

Hoarding is when collecting negatively affects “reasonable, normal life”. That seems to be a blurry line in some cases.

Things I’ve collected

Growing up, I think we all collected something. I’ve collected a lot of things over the years, from hockey cards to wrestling action figures (I still have those in a closet) to video games that I never ended up playing to movie and TV show DVDs back before streaming.

A lot like the MRI studies showed, I tend to lose interest immediately after collecting whatever I collected. I definitely fall into the group of collectors in it for the chase. I also like to dive head-first into learning everything about the rare action figures or special edition movie releases.

Over the years, I’ve gotten over not only collecting things but just things in general. I blame minimalism and books about tidying up solving all of life’s problems.

But I do still find myself wanting or needing to do something new, learn about something new, go on a new quest. This podcast is part of that picture but that’s another episode.

Element collecting

When element collecting came up on my list of uncommon hobbies, it immediately piqued my interest because it seems like the perfect blend of learning about elements, a long-term search as some elements are rare, and not being left with hundreds of things to collect dust in one of the many closets in our house.

Let’s start with what is an element, or chemical element. It’s is a pure substance that cannot be broken down. There are currently 118 known elements. 94 of those occur naturally and can be found on Earth and the other 24 are synthetic and the result of nuclear reactions.

That last 24 seems not only dangerous but hard to get. Actually, it’s a known secret that it’s basically impossible to collect all of them but that’s part of the chase.

The period table of elements was created in 1869 by a Russian chemist and is the basis for our modern understanding of elements.

Already you can probably see why collecting elements is exciting for some collectors. Specific to element collecting, one quote sums it up as

There’s something really appealing about having the building blocks of the universe in your possession.


So what does collecting an element actually look like? Well, it depends on the collector:

  • Some collect only purest form of elements, with some isolating elements in their homes
  • Some only collect what they can find in nature
  • Some consider it collected if it’s part of another object, either in nature or in a manufactured product
  • Some collect specifically made samples for collectors bought online

You can see it ranges from difficult to buying entire sets online.

Finding the element can be an important part of the hobby as it can involve travel, which have their own memories and meaning.

Some elements are just dangerous and sale is very restricted.

Some elements’ half-lives are so short it’s not practical for collecting as they decay quickly.

Which element do I collect first?

So where do you start collecting? What element do you start with? I googled that question and found a fantastic guide that you can find in the show notes. It walks you through finding samples of 33 elements in every day places. Besides that, it tells you about the element and things you can do with it.

I went through the list to see what I had in my house. Here’s what I found:

  1. Zinc – an American penny (you file the copper plating off) or nuts and bolts. Zinc has a low melting point so you can melt a bunch of filed pennies to make your own shape.
  2. Nickel – as a Canadian this one is easier since our Nickels were 99.9% nickel till 1981 and quarters till 2000. Our nickel comes from Sudbury where it is said that a meteorite created the basin.
  3. Tin – if you’re into fishing, you can find tin in sinkers. If you’re into soldering, you’ll have tin solder.
  4. Silicon – this one is easy to find in electronics. There is silicon in diodes and transistors.
  5. Carbon – You can get carbon rods from batteries. Wear gloves if you decide to take batteries apart.
  6. Gold – besides jewelry, electronics and cable ends have small bits of gold.
  7. Silver – besides jewelry and coins, apparently coffee makers have silver plated fuses. If you want to find out if something is silver, you can put it in egg yolk of a hardboiled egg, the sulfur in the yolk makes silver blacken.
  8. Platinum – more expensive than gold, you can find this in spark plugs.
  9. Lead – another win for anyone who fishes, there are lead sinkers. Or if you have a gun, there’s always lead bullets. I used pieces of lead used for balancing tires. Lead is pretty toxic so be careful.

As I went through the list, it became harder and harder to find them in my house. I did toy with the idea of going out to find these things but…I don’t know, I can’t commit to collecting more.

I like the idea: I like that each element has a story to tell and a ton of fun facts. I like that there is a big community of pro and amateur chemists who are really excited about it. I like that I can set up a cool little displays.

The journey is mostly researching online. While I’d grow intellectually, I think I need a physical component. It’s so stationary. It’s a lot of videos and articles, which is easy to jump into whenever I’m in the mood but there isn’t enough of a physical experience. It’s much more of an intellectual or mental hobby.

With all the other hobbies I tried, there was a physical experience: from the obvious Spartan Race and Autocross, to the heart-pounding of Standup comedy, even to the feeling of dirt of Dorodango.

I’m glad I looked into Element Collecting because at least now I know what type of hobbies are not for me.