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Nature Watch: PBS series brings the elements to life

A few weeks ago, I noticed in the television schedule a three-hour program on PBS called “The Mystery of Matter.” I decided to watch, and those three hours were among the finest I have ever enjoyed watching TV.

This unheralded program – I recall no prior advertising – should be made available to every high school that teaches chemistry and every middle school that offers general science. I recommend its purchase for school and public libraries.

As the subtitle of this three-part series indicates, it is about the “Search for the Elements,” those 118 chemical entities of Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table. The first episode, “Out of Thin Air,” (1754 to 1806) focuses on the contrasting approaches to science of Joseph Priestley, who experimented widely, but in this seemingly hit-and-miss process turned up important findings, and Antoine Lavoisier, whose accurate measurements led to his own discoveries and refutation of accepted theory. Then Humphry Davy applied electricity in his own search for fundamental chemical units.

The second episode, “Unruly Elements,” (1859 to 1902) begins with Mendeleev’s invention of the periodic table but then focuses on Marie and Pierre Curie, who followed up on Antoine Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity to discover radioactive elements.

The final hour, “Into the Atom,” (1910 to 1960) is devoted to Henry Moseley’s justification of Mendeleev’s table through use of X-ray spectroscopy and Glenn Seaborg’s discovery, through use of powerful new equipment, of transuranium elements that fit uncomfortably but finally extend the table in a new direction to lead to its completion.

Although the stories focus on the lives and contributions of these major figures, other outstanding scientists make brief appearances. Hardly bit players in the history of science, they include Hennig Brandt (phosphorous), Joseph Black (carbon dioxide), Daniel Rutherford (nitrogen) and Henry Cavendish (hydrogen). Here, too, are Louis Pasteur, James Watt, Alessandro Volta and two teachers whose support of the series protagonists’ work wavered. Marie Curie’s doctoral mentor, Gabriel Lippmann, nominated only her husband, Pierre, for a Nobel Prize, despite the fact that Marie led the research. Pierre corrected that and they received the award jointly; Marie won another later. Moseley and his lab partner, mathematician Charles G. Darwin, son of the famous evolutionist, had to talk their adviser, Ernest Rutherford, into allowing them to carry on their work.

Of course we have had many fine science series. What was it about this one that so impressed me? There were a number of things:

• Very high quality is maintained through every minute of the three hours. The 10 years that went into the production is evident.

• It would be very hard to pick a topic that is intrinsically more boring than that listing of elements that we call the Periodic Table. Yet many of those elements are brought to life through superb storytelling.

• It would be easy to say that the seven principal characters are truly interesting. I suggest that just the opposite is true. I conjecture that only Davy and perhaps Priestley would make interesting dinner partners for most of us. The rest would be talking over our heads. Sadly, Moseley’s death at age 27, leading troops in World War I, ended an exciting career. Isaac Asimov called it “arguably the greatest single loss of life in that war.”

• Finally, I must salute the narrator, Michael Emerson. I had to search to find his identity because he came across as a deeply knowledgeable scientist. Instead I found that he is an award-winning actor who invested himself in this role perfectly.