A Periodic Table with Heart

It seems that there is no subject immune to organization into a periodic table. A brief Google search reveals periodic tables for everything from beer to typefaces and from art to visualization methods. If a subject can be organized into groups with common properties, or even if it cannot, it appears that it can be made to fit the format.

In amongst all the geeky, funny and just plain weird periodic tables, the old familiar one is undergoing something of resurgence as well. For example, there are several interactive periodic tables for the iPad where you can view any number of characteristics of each element with a tap of the finger, it is now easier than ever to find out everything you will ever need to know about Barium, Potassium, or Neon, to name but a few.

But for me (and a few million other YouTube visitors) one periodic table stands head and shoulders above them all—The Periodic Table of Videos, produced by journalist Brady Haran, Prof. Martyn Poliakoff and others at the University of Nottingham. As the name suggests, this periodic table contains videos introducing each element, demonstrating the properties of each and including interesting anecdotes about their discovery or use. In a recent Science article, Haran and Poliakoff state that all 118 videos were shot over a 5-week period. There were no storyboards or scripts, they simply filmed the scientists talking about each element and demonstrating the important characteristics. The result of this approach is astonishingly engaging. And the informal style is highly successful in communicating the passion and enthusiasm of Dr. Poliakoff and his colleagues for their subject. Try to watch this Sodium video to the end without smiling—-I don’t think it can be done.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IT2I3LtlNE&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&version=3]

The videos for the more well-known elements are longer (4-6 minutes), others are more brief. But even the short ones succeed in giving interesting tidbits of information about lesser-known elements. For example, I learned that Palladium is used in mobile phones and Californium in metal detectors. And I hadn’t thought about electron shells or flame tests in a long time. Watching these videos reminded me of one of my first chemistry teachers, who used to jump about excitedly as he held various elements in a Bunsen flame to show us the distinctive colors with which they burned. For me, in addition to delivering a tremendous amount of useful and interesting information, the Periodic Table of Videos demonstrates that the enthusiasm of a good teacher is contagious. Judging by the response to these videos among schoolchildren, teachers and other scientists, I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Here are a couple of examples:

Uranium, the Boogyman
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8vVZTvJNGk&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&version=3]

Making Boron Interesting
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzqdHkpXuy4&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&version=3]
For some elements, the videos include field trips to the places they were discovered, and other places of relevance to the story for that element. There is a Strontium video that includes a rainy trip to Srontian, Scotland. I love that it’s pouring rain there, it just adds to the authenticity of the whole endeavor. The video collection has also expanded beyond the elements to cover subjects like Carbon Dioxide, alcohol and the mechanism of action of drugs like Penicillin. This quote from the end of the Penicillin video perhaps sums up the whole effect:

“…Who knows what’s going to be achieved in the future with Chemistry..I think that’s just exciting in itself”

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Isobel Maciver

Isobel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and of Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. She is a technical writer and editor, and is also manager of the Scientific Communications group at Promega. She enjoys writing about issues in science and communication.

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