Open doors at Chemistry (2): Cupcakes on the Table

Periodic flavours of the elements

This post is a ‘slideshow’ of pictures of the exhibition on the Periodic Table organised by the Department of Chemistry of the University of Oxford on 19th September 2015, following the public lecture of the day before. One of its highlights was an enormous knitted periodic table: a team of fourteen members of the staff of the Department first painstakingly knitted the individual square ‘patches’ housing the elements, which were then assembled, mounted on fabric and completed with plastic letters printed on a 3D printer.

Aerial view of the knitted Periodic Table…
…and a caption putting it into the wider context

Gordon Woods, enthusiastic collector of Periodic tables and related items, provided a magnificent Ukrainian version. Securing it to the wall required the same titanic effort that, long ago, Mendeleev put into trying to make sense of the periodicity of the elements!

A different arrangement for the same elements

The complete set of the elements, a generous loan from Max Whitby and his colleagues at, was another leading piece of the exhibition, garnering again much attention from visitors of all age. Two metal cylinders, one made of magnesium, the other made of titanium, were tremendously useful in demonstrating the dramatic difference in weight between lighter and heavier metals.

The hands-on table

A series of posters addressed the historical development of ideas about the periodic classification of the elements, along with the philosophical significance of the periodic system of the elements and its influence on culture and literature.

A first poster showed the timeline of the long journey from simple substances to atomic numbers. Note the accumulation of red-dot years just after the Karlsruhe Congress.

Periodic classification of the elements from Geoffroy to Moseley

On the philosophy poster, Aristotle and Epicurus duel to establish the structure of matter and the nature of the elements; at the same time, chemistry tries to reassert its own peculiarity, dispelling the undeserved reputation of being a lesser science than physics or biology, without great ideas. Well, what about the periodic law and the chemical bonding, then? In addition, the continuous development of the ideas on the periodic classification of the elements over two centuries provides a stark contrast to the model of scientific progress proposed by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (quieter periods of consensus – the so-called normal science – come abruptly to an end when breakthroughs challenge the previous paradigm, marking the onset of a revolutionary phase).

Next, we explore the interface between the periodic system and literature. Starting from a brief overview of three concepts, periodicity, system and element, which feature for example in postmodern narrative, we address an interview with late Oliver Sacks, who, while terminally ill, compared the years to his life to the atomic number of the elements that he had in front of him on his desk (see the set above). Growing old is a form of nucleogenesis of heavier elements, and, alas, he stopped at 82 last month. The highlight of the poster, however, is Primo Levi’s collection of short stories Il sistema periodico (lit. The Periodic System, but translated in English as The Periodic Table). Excerpts from five stories feature on the poster, and this passage from Silver is an apt description of Primo Levi’s intentions when he set about writing and assembling his book:

I was in search of events, mine and those of others, which I wanted to put on display in a book, to see if I could convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavor of our trade, which is only a particular instance, a more strenuous version of the business of living. […] It did not seem fair to me that the world should know everything about how the doctor, prostitute, sailor, assassin, countess, ancient Roman, conspirator, and Polynesian lives and nothing about how we transformers of matter live: […] I would deliberately neglect the grand chemistry, the triumphant chemistry of colossal plants and dizzying outputs, because this is collective work and therefore anonymous. I was more interested in the stories of the solitary chemistry, unarmed and on foot, at the measure of man, which with few exceptions has been mine“.

For Levi and Sacks, elements are material symbols, stepping stones emerging from the turbulent stream of our lives, which offer us a grid to make sense of the “business of living”, allowing us to keep afloat when facing sorrowful memories, or aiding us to come to terms with our own mortality.

Primo Levi’s portrait shown on the poster is a caricature kindly provided by Italian caricaturist, humor artist and illustrator Marilena Nardi,

20150919_103632Older and newer periodic tables were displayed side-by-side: on the left, a photographic reproduction of a 1920s Periodic Table in use at the University of Turin at the time when Primo Levi was reading chemistry at that university (courtesy of the Archivio Scientifico Tecnologico dell’Università di Torino and the Centro Studi Primo Levi); on the right, a more recent, highly visual version. Which is your favourite?

20150919_104542Elemental cupcakes, arranged in the familiar sequence of periods and groups, were offered to visitors to raise funds for the Sobell House Hospice, in memory of colleague and friend Dr Kristína Csatayová.

Lastly, a few words on my personal experience as science communicator. The audience was primarily composed of Oxford alumni (after all, the exhibition was organised within the framework of the Oxford Alumni Weekend) from all walks of life, whose background was, as a consequence, extremely varied, ranging from no prior knowledge of chemistry, or a lay interest in the discipline, to a decade-long career as chemistry teacher in secondary schools. I quickly realised that I would need to brace for a volley of questions covering the entire gamut of all things periodic. At first, I found it challenging to pitch my answers at the right level, but then I sort of naturally adjusted, striking a balance between depth and breadth. In particular, it was the gist which had to be conveyed in the clearest way, and it was very helpful for me to think in terms of ‘take-home messages’, as in scientific talks. I remember this elderly lady with curious eyes and a keen interest in the poster on the historical evolution of the periodic classification of the elements, who asked me to help her to understand how the periodic system eventually morphed into the familiar arrangement. I was aware that I could never have covered the entire ground from Geoffroy to Moseley, and so I decided to compare and contrast the figures of Lavoisier and Dalton. Luckily, she had a smattering of history of chemistry, which made my task massively simpler, and, in her words, very successful.
On the other hand, I could also mention the Socratic attitude of another visitor: I let myself be dragged into a philosophical discussion on periodicity (and I am proud that I could stand my ground), which eventually led us to agree that individual elements are material simulacra: at the end of the day, what matters is the position in the periodic system, the properties associated with it, and the network of relationships creating groups and periods.

If you are an art lover, do not forget to visit the exhibition Art of the Elements at Compton Verney art gallery! A radio review was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 and is available online.

And I would like to conclude, it goes without saying, by acknowledging the entire team of volunteers who worked behind the curtains and on stage to contribute to this very successful exhibition on the Periodic Table.


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