"Popular Atomics: Periodic Table Is New Touchstone of Geek Chic"
Chemical Elements Are All the Rage; 'Breaking Bad' and Daniel Radcliffe Attest
September 19th, 2012
The Wall Street Journal
The Vaxholm Fortress Museum near here has exhibits on its defense of Stockholm and on the local artillery regiment. But visitors increasingly come to see a one-room display that has no guns, bullets or soldiers. It is devoted to the periodic table of elements.
Ytterby's abandoned mine is a minor mecca for chemistry fans. Seven elements were discovered in its ore, more than from any other source. Indeed, four were named for the town: Ytterbium, Yttrium, Erbium and Terbium.
"Maybe someday most of the museum will be about Ytterby and only a little bit will be about the fortress," joked director Erik Himmelstrand recently, standing amid cannons in the courtyard.
Ytterby is just one element of the chemical world with growing popular appeal. New books, websites, apps and toys have opened the periodic table to more interest than ever, engaging many people who snoozed through chemistry class or "Watch Mr. Wizard."
Thanks to current TV shows including "Breaking Bad"—the series about a high-school chemistry teacher who cooks crystal meth with a former student to pay his bills—and food fads like molecular gastronomy, which combines cuisine and chemistry, the elements now have geek chic. A clip of the 23-year-old actor Daniel Radcliffe on a British talk show singing "The Elements," a litany of chemical names, has had more than 3.7 million hits on YouTube.
Satirist and mathematics professor Tom Lehrer wrote the song in 1951 by setting the periodic table to a Gilbert and Sullivan tune. Recently it has figured in such TV shows as "The Big Bang Theory" and "NCIS."
"It seems to be everywhere now," says the 84-year-old Mr. Lehrer, who stopped performing the song decades ago.
"The Periodic Table of Videos," an online collection of short films presented by chemists at the University of Nottingham in Britain, has had more than 26 million views.
"Chemistry videos are exciting," says producer Brady Haran. "What's more fun than watching a professor throw a piece of cesium in water and seeing it blow up?"
People who lacked patience for a chemistry set can now buy periodic table shower curtains, T-shirts, coffee mugs and even a periodic coffee table. The furniture piece, made of burred oak with samples of inlaid elements, costs $8,550, plus shipping, which gets pricey. For safety reasons, fluorine, chlorine and bromine are forbidden on airplanes, says Max Whitby in London, who produces the table.
Mr. Whitby and his American partner, Theo Gray, ship more of their periodic table place mats and posters, and not just to science-museum gift shops. Sales clerks say Kapler's Pharmacy in oceanside resort Beach Haven, N.J., sells six or seven periodic table posters each summer, at $49.95 apiece.
"There's a whole ascendancy of the nerd these days," says Mr. Gray in Urbana, Ill., who also writes about science and collects elements. "Bill Gates becoming a rock star…all those pimply kids who created Facebook and Twitter becoming millionaires—it's now hip to be a nerd."
The periodic table's transmutation into marketing gold has come slowly. First developed in 1869 by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev as a way to categorize the few known elements, it made him famous. But even as scientists like Marie Curie expanded the table with new discoveries, it remained the domain of lab rats.
Its appeal first broadened among intellectuals. Some references were weighty, as in "The Periodic Table," Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi's 1975 collection of stories about life during World War II.
Mr. Lehrer's song, set to the music of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," was lighter. "I would have added a few more elements, but they didn't rhyme," he recalls.
A sign of the periodic table's mainstream appeal came with Mr. Gray's publication in 2009 of "The Elements," a coffee-table book packed with artistic photographs presenting each one as a priceless gem. The tome, which Mr. Gray touts as "the definitive be-all, end-all book of the elements," has sold more than 650,000 copies. An iPad app he produced with Mr. Whitby in 2010 has sold nearly 300,000 copies more.
Element fans are people like Bryan O'Callaghan, an Irish radiologist in Switzerland who about seven years ago tried explaining atoms to his young son. Soon they were contacting companies world-wide for samples of elements, and most obliged. A nuclear facility even sent a tiny bit of uranium, says Mr. O'Callaghan, who turned to Mr. Whitby in London for help completing his collection.
"People are enthralled," Mr. O'Callaghan says of the wooden case with vials containing all 92 naturally occurring elements. Another 26 elements have been created in labs, but most only fleetingly.
Mr. Haran, the periodic videos producer, says he gets comments "from people who lament a wasted youth in chemistry class not paying attention" and people who never studied the subject.
The Nottingham University team has chased elements to Australia, Ethiopia and Ytterby. Lead professor Martyn Poliakoff says he was stopped in South Africa by one fan and in London by another, a student from Minnesota who wanted to take a picture with him.
Prof. Poliakoff says chemistry's mainstream status hit him last year at a convenience store on a British highway. In the book rack there, he found copies of "The Disappearing Spoon," a best seller published in 2010 that recounts "true tales from the periodic table."
Author Sam Kean says that since starting the book, he has come across the table produced in cupcakes, used in a sneaker ad by Foot Locker and reinterpreted to categorize things ranging from vegetables to curse words.
"It just pops up in places you don't expect," says Mr. Kean.
Mass appeal doesn't bother serious chemists. "We need all the help we can get" popularizing science, says Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, who advises writers of the AMC show "Breaking Bad." Prof. Nelson has organized two sessions for members of the American Chemistry Society to meet with Hollywood writers and producers.
Despite chemistry's new cachet, Prof. Poliakoff says not all doors have opened. Element 79, for example, remains problematic. "We really would like to go to a bullion vault" to shoot a video on gold, he says. "But nobody's offered yet."
Periodic Table [Chemical & Engineering News]