Friday, July 27, 2012

Give me history!

Posted by Michal Meyer on 07/27 at 06:48 PM

I wanted to dislike the recent Nova special Hunting the Elements, an attempt to place the periodic table and its contents in a broader context for the average PBS viewer. After all, the list of experts did not include a single historian. How can a broad, robust exploration of this icon of chemistry exclude the history of the science behind its creation?

Unfortunately, I enjoyed Hunting the Elements way too much to be able to give even the mildest of scolds. Presenter David Pogue had a wonderful energy to him and the show itself covered some current issues via the elements, such as the reopening of a rare earth mine in the United States due to China, the world’s supplier of rare earths, raising prices and restricting access. The scientists on the show were approachable and retained an enviable sense of humor in their dealings with Pogue.

In one scene Pogue went shopping with chemist Christine Thomas for the elemental supplies needed to make a David Pogue. The bags of charcoal represented the proper amount of carbon in his body; matches were collected for their phosphorous, bottles of water for hydrogen and oxygen, fertilizer for nitrogen. (Amusingly, the matches did not supply enough phosphorous so Thomas sends Pogue off to provide more, via his urine.)

The closest I came to finger wagging was Pogue’s description of alchemist Hennig Brandt’s discovery of phosphorous in the 17th century. Brandt was not looking for gold in urine; instead he distilled urine in an attempt to make the Philosopher’s Stone (which could then be used to perfect baser metals into gold). But this quibble faded into insignificance as soon as I saw Theo Gray’s periodic table filled with elements. (Yes, it really was a table!)

In another segment Pogue used his body to help tell the rare-earth story. He hovered protectively over the rare-earth containing rock he had personally dug up and was horrified when his expert took a hammer to another rock, removed a tiny piece for demonstration purposes, and threw the rest into the garbage. Rare earths aren’t so rare, just hard to get into pure form. Pogue showed a rare ability to express concepts and issues through his physicals actions and expressions.

There’s also the evocative descriptions: the rise of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria with their oxygen producing capabilities early in the earth’s history was described as “the planet slowly rusted.” A rare earth metal that repels sharks (who knew?) was called “kryptonite for sharks.”

I was also impressed by how the show used the elements to build up our understanding of the universe and ourselves, which allowed it to spread into areas such as cosmology (the life and death of stars) and geopolitics (rare earths, explosives). The show didn’t completely ignore history; the online quiz had plenty of historical tidbits, but mostly of the dull and useless variety that requires knowledge of dates rather than understanding.

Hunting the Elements got me thinking about two series I’ve always loved: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and James Burke’s Connections. Both men focused on the big picture and both included a lot of history of science and technology through their own interpretations of life, the universe, and (not quite) everything. Each man infused his own personality into his work, which gave the viewer a personal connection into the science and its scope and history. There was time and space to take stock, to build big pictures, and to reflect on science as part of our culture.

Hunting the Elements is a step in the right direction. Now, how about an updated version of Cosmos or Connections for the 21st century?

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