The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements

Periodic table

TV and movie screens today offer us a desperate fight against crazy-fast zombies, a peek into celebrities’ lives where truth is often stranger than fiction, million-dollar game shows, and more. Can portraits of science compete? Last month I watched a new PBS series “The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements” to see what it might bring to the education (and entertainment) table.

The series premiered in Oregon, with a national release planned for sometime in 2015. An email from the American Chemical Society Portland Local Section alerted its members to the series. What intrigued me was that it would feature actors portraying the scientists, speaking (when possible) the words of the scientists themselves, and showing re-enactments of various experiments using replica scientific equipment from those historical periods. Its blog site describes it as being “about the amazing human story behind the Periodic Table” (http://mystery-of-matter.blogspot.com). Short promotional videos with scenes from the series are online (http://vimeo.com/user14321084).

I caught the first and last episodes out of three. The first focused on Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, and Humphry Davy; the second Marie Curie and Dmitri Mendeleev; the third Henry Moseley and Glenn Seaborg. Host Michael Emerson narrated portions featuring each scientist. I found it difficult to see and hear him without automatically thinking of his creepy Ben Linus character from the TV series Lost. Two years ago there was a call for applications for the host spot, preferably someone from the chemistry community, so his choice is a departure from that (http://cenblog.org/newscripts/2012/02/your-chance-to-host-a-pbs-program-about-chemistry/).

Each episode was about an hour long. Portions focusing on each particular scientist were fairly stand-alone, so those shorter chunks could fit into the typical length of a high school class period. The entire episode is interspersed with sections from the host as well as short comments from various scientists. These additional people tended to be older white males. I wondered why no women and only one minority were tapped for these brief pieces in the two episodes I saw. 

The highlight of the first episode for me was the section on Davy. Less well known than the often-mentioned Priestley and Lavoisier, I appreciated the attention paid to his contribution to the periodic table. Davy cut a youthful and adventuresome (reckless, perhaps?) figure, which might appeal to high school students. One example is a clip of Davy testing laughing gas on himself and his companions (http://vimeo.com/109155827). There are several instances in the episodes where the safety practices of the past could be compared with those used now. It also showed him as a famous figure of the day, with women admirers attending his packed chemistry demonstration shows.

The third episode was more engaging to me than the first. Lots of scientist names (a feel of scientist celebrities, in my mind) in the mix with various links to each other, with Rutherford, Chadwick, James Bryant Conant, and Fermi. It was interesting to see the role that war played in the lives of both Moseley and Seaborg. Even the small details of the episode were fascinating—vacuum pumps being jealously guarded in the lab, with Moseley creating a way around his lack of one; the use of cigarette papers to carry out an experiment.

Along with the national release, a blog about the series promises additional materials that would be useful for educators (http://mystery-of-matter.blogspot.com/2014/10/other-project-components-in-addition-to.html). These include a teacher’s edition, a dozen web videos “made expressly for chemistry teachers from material shot for the television series,” and an outreach plan for sharing the concepts of matter with others.

I look forward to seeing the second episode that I missed and exploring the promised accompanying educational materials. Two ways to stay up to date on the series and its release are at its Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/mysteryofmatter) and blog (http://mystery-of-matter.blogspot.com). It would be an excellent tool for bringing students a different view of the periodic table and those involved in its history.

Any Oregonians out there who saw it already? What did you think?