September 18th, 2014

Elements of Fun

By Cindy Mascone | Comments (0)
Periodic Table of Elements, partial This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appeared in the print version of Chemical Engineering Progress, September 2014. Whenever I come across an interesting article or tidbit of information in the general media that I think might make a good topic for an editorial, I file it away. Then, each month when it’s time to write my editorial, I browse through those (paper and electronic) files to find anything that relates to what’s in the issue or what’s happening at AIChE. A few years ago, I came across Discover magazine’s “20 Things You Didn’t Know About…The Periodic Table,” and I knew it was a keeper. Surely, I thought, at some point I’ll be able to relate this to an article. So you can understand why I was elated when I read the first sentence of this issue’s cover feature, “Manage Raw Material Supply Risks” by Anthony Ku and Stephen Hung (pp. 28–35): Modern society depends on a wide and increasing array of raw materials – from simple steels to esoteric compounds derived from the far corners of the periodic table…” There it was – my chance to have some fun with one of my favorite pieces of artwork.

My first memorable encounter with the periodic table came on the first or second day of my high school chemistry class, when our homework was to memorize the first 36 elements in order. My best friend, Chris, and I devised a mnemonic to help us remember: Harry Helped Little Bees Because Chris N[her last name] Ordered Frank to Never Nail Meg’s Altogether Silly Pot, So Clarence Arrived. The next sentence would now be considered politically incorrect and so will remain between Chris and me. The closer: Gary and George Asked Seemingly Brilliant Krestions. (We thought we were being quite brilliant with that one.) Even though some of it was nonsensical, we were the only two in the class who got 100% on the quiz. (The fact that we were girls and the teacher did not think girls should study advanced sciences – let alone do better than all of the boys in the class – is a story for another time and place.)

My enthusiasm for the periodic table continued into adulthood. One year, as my husband was looking for a unique Christmas gift, he came across a 38-in. by 26-in. poster of the periodic table at the New York Hall of Science. It’s well illustrated, with pictures of John Dalton, Amedeo Avogadro, Dimitrij Mendeleev, Marie Curie, and Albert Einstein. Pie charts summarize the abundance of chemical elements in nature – in the earth’s crust, seawater, air, and the human body. A chart lists the elements in alphabetical order with their atomic number, year of discovery, and discoverer. The information in each element’s box as well as the legends are in five languages – English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German. Being a poster, it came rolled in a tube – and that’s how it stayed, much to my husband’s dismay. Until a few years later, when he framed it and regifted it to me, then took it to my office and hung it for all to admire.

I brought it with me to the new office, and even though it hasn’t been hung yet, I keep it handy, and we do refer to it periodically (pun intended). Another aid for learning the elements, though not in order, is The Elements song, written by Tom Lehrer and set to the tune of the Major-General’s Song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. “There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, / And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium, / And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium, / And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium …” When Lehrer wrote the song in 1959, only 102 elements (up to nobelium) were known. As a contingency, he ended the song with: “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, / And there may be many others but they haven’t been discovered.” Several more had been discovered by the time my poster (which has a copyright date of 1999) was printed. It contains 110 elements, the last named one being Element 103, Lawrencium. Elements 104 through 110 are referred to as Unnilquadium (Unq), Unnilpentium (Unp), Unnilhexium (Unh), Unnilseptium (Uns), Unniloctium (Uno), Unnilenium (Une), Ununnilium (Uun). We now know them as Rutherfordium (Rf), Dubnium (Db), Seaborgium (Sg), Bohrium (Bh), Hassium (Hs), Meitnerium (Mt), and Darmstadtium (Ds). More recently, we’ve learned about Element 111, Roentgenium (Rg, discovered in 1994); 112, Copernicium (Cn, 1996); 114, Flerovium (Fl, 1999); and 116, Livermorium (Lv, 2000); as well as four unconfirmed and unnamed elements: 113, Ununtrium (Uut, 2003); 115, Ununpentium (Uup, 2003); 117, Ununseptium (Uus, 2010); and 118, Ununoctium (Uuo, 2002). In conducting research for this editorial, I came across all sorts of interesting webpages. For example, I was reminded of the shower curtain in Sheldon and Leonard’s bathroom on The Big Bang Theory when I saw on Imgur “Things you contemplate in the shower if you have a periodic table shower curtain.” The image is a Venn diagram in which one circle has the chemical elements and the other has the U.S. states. How many in the intersection can you come up with? Hint: There are 16. Click here to see the image. I had the most fun exploring YouTube. (If only YouTube was around when Chris and I took chemistry! We might have been an Internet sensation.) There are numerous interpretations of Lehrer’s The Elements — including one by Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter), a video of Jim Parsons (aka The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper) reliving his rendition of it with Conan O’Brien, and my favorite, six-year-old genius Arden Hayes performing on Jimmy Kimmel Live. A different song, Elements — A Rap, covers only the first 20 elements, but it goes into more detail about them, explaining: “We can’t pretend that the elements / Are organized so randomly / Think about the e-lec-trons, e-lec-trons, e-lec-trons” and “a period is just a term for a row they have the same shell where all the electrons go.” Chemistry students trying to memorize the elements in order today can use as their mnemonic one of the newest videos, “The NEW Periodic Table Song (In Order)” by asapSCIENCE. I could go on and on… In fact, I did in this expanded version of this editorial, which also appears on [In addition to the links in the text above, you can also check out an elements trivia quiz.] As it turns out, I did know some of the 20 things on the Discover list, and I’m sure you will, too. Have fun!

What trivia or early memories about the elements can you share?

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