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Molybdenite, even to the trained eye, looks almost identical to graphite — a lustrous, silvery crystal. It acts similarly too, sloughing off flakes in a way that would make for a good pencil filling. But to an electron, the two grids of atoms form different worlds. The distinction first entered the scientific record 244 years ago. Carl Scheele, a Swedish chemist renowned for his discovery of oxygen, plunged each mineral into assorted acids and watched the lurid clouds of gas that billowed forth. Scheele, who eventually paid for this approach with his life, dying of suspected heavy metal poisoning at 43, concluded that molybdenite was a new substance. Describing it in a letter to the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in 1778, he wrote, “I refer here not to the commonly known graphite that one can acquire from the apothecary. This transition metal seems to be unknown.”

With its tendency to flake into powdery fragments, molybdenite became a popular lubricant in the 20th century. It helped skis glide farther through the snow and smoothed the exit of bullets from rifle barrels in Vietnam.

Today, that same flakiness is fueling a physics revolution.

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