October 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

A big and warm welcome to you, kind and enthusiastic reader: a big and warm welcome to the realm of matter, which matters a lot, because it’s all related to what we are and what we are surrounded by.

The idea started around a year ago with a charming and enthusiastic event hosted by The Wellcome Collection. The title of the event, “Elements”, already suggested that it was to deal with chemistry, but it was about much more. It was about nature and its unexpected manifestations and properties. The subtitle “Kill or Cure?” hinted at the type of elements which were to perform at the Wellcome show: iodine, oxygen, mercury, arsenic. Each element was allocated its own room, through which from 7pm people walked with beers, snacks and wine glasses in their hands, gathering around the table-shows, where the four characters rested still, ready to make their entrance.

All at once, the show started!

Oxygen made cotton “ships” explode at the sight of fire and performed magical colour-changes in a bottle of glucose and methylene, while levitating in pale blue liquid form between two magnets.

Iodine started a periodic, swinging dance between being colourless, amber, and dark blue – showing off his ability to create invisible ink, to disinfect, and turn blue when added to potatoes or other starchy food.

Mercury showed its beating heart in a visual installation of a mercury pool and its peculiar properties due to extremely high density – try to pick up 1litre bottle of mercury…

And Arsenic … is a bit of a messy guy, so for safety reasons The Wellcome Collection did not allow it to perform by itself. Instead it was represented by Andy Meharg’s theatrical rehearsals of trials for poisoning, from Napoleon to Madame Bovary, and its curative effects in syphilis and leukaemia today.

Finally the four elements joined together in an artistic show of multimedia installations, set up by the artist Henny Burnett: candles burning oxygen, iodine halogen lamps, mercury vapour lamps and fluorescent substances and LEDs based on arsenic. Tales of the self-experimenting J.S. Haldane and a performance by singer and pianist Virginia Firnberg put the icing on the cake of this lively story of these elements.

This event as well as the name of this blog were inspired by the beautiful book Periodic Tales: the Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Alderley-Williams, who co-curated the event together with Prof. Andrea Sella of UCL.

The show must go on! This year it will be repeated but with four different protagonists. Which four elements will give the show?

For the time being, I welcome you again dear reader on board “Periodic Stories”, bound for the discovery of matter.