Mercury: How It Made Cats Dance

Mercury has captivated humanity for ages. But what happens when it invades a town?

cartoonish, silvery, shiny gray blob of elemental mercury splashes on a wine-colored, paper-textured background
Credit: Kay Wasil

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In 1953, in the coastal town of Minamata in Japan, locals noticed some cats were acting strangely—twitching, spinning in circles, almost dancing. The reality was far darker. What looked like dancing was really convulsions. The cats drooled, spun in circles, and flung themselves into the sea. The cause of this strange behavior, residents discovered, was mercury.

Mercury—a silvery liquid, named for a quick-footed Roman God—has captivated humans since ancient times. It’s found in Egyptian tombs that date to 1500 BCE, and the first emperor of unified China believed it was the elixir of life. But what happens when it invades a town, and seeps into our brains?

Read a transcript of this episode.

Footnotes & Further Reading:

For this story, we relied heavily on the book Minamata : Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan.

Learn how mercury played a pivotal role in pinpointing a key campsite location in the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Credits:

This episode of Science Diction was written by Kaitlyn Schwalje, and produced by Elah Feder and Johanna Mayer. Elah is our Editor and Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt sound designed this episode and composed all the music. We had fact checking help from Danya Abdelhameid and Robin Palmer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.


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This season of Science Diction is sponsored by Audible.

Meet the Writers

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosts Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is a senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produces the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

About Kaitlyn Schwalje

Kaitlyn Schwalje was an intern for Science Friday’s Undiscovered podcast. She’s a Brooklyn-based artist and radio producer. As the daughter of a safety engineer, Kaitlyn received an early education in disaster.

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