Periodic craziness

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I’ve been helping my younger son study the Periodic Table of the Elements for a chemistry test. One of us is embarrassingly enthusiastic about this. “Po!” I announce. “Polonium! Now that was named by Marie Curie for her native Poland and…”

For some reason – can this really be my child? – he puts his head on the table. So later, while mulling over Pb (lead), I simply send him an e-mail informing him that the Pb came from the Latin word plumbum, which referred to a malleable metal. “Pb. Plumbum. Plumbing! Lead Pipes! See? It’s all connected!”

For some reason – could there have been a substitution at the hospital birth center? – he pretends he never received this missive. Over dinner, however, the conversation somehow shifts to the subject of REALLY DORKY parents who insist on telling their children WAY MORE than they want to know.

For some reason, this makes me laugh. He may have something here, the barest slightest possibility of a point. His mother IS a Period Table crazy, the kind of nut who looks at a son’s high school homework and starts admiring this wonderful structure, this table of contents for the book of life, this intricate, ornate doorway to the world around us.

The Periodic Table of the Elements resembles on first glance a stacked wall of square blocks, scribbled over with numbers and details as if a graffiti artist had spent a chemically improved afternoon here. Each block is marked with an element’s chemical symbol and that symbol surrounded by the kind of details that chemists see as essential – atomic weight, oxidation states, boiling point, melting point, electron configuration, density – and countless others see as strange and mysterious.

The symbol blocks are stacked top to bottom according to each element’s atomic number, which tells you the number of positively charged protons fizzing around in the nucleus. Hydrogen (H) has just one proton, for instance, floating it to the top of the chart. The unstable radioactive element plutonium (Pu) is packed with 94 protons, which drag it down to near bottom of the list.

“I know what kind of student you were,” he says darkly, and it’s clear he suspects that I spent my high school years lurking around the Bunsen burners, cleaning test tubes and wiping chemical crud off some kind of legally registered Dweeb glasses.

Of course, this makes me laugh some more and we have quite the little discussion about parents who don’t know when something is ACTUALLY FUNNY. And then – because he does have this quiz coming up, after all – we return to the wonders of the Table of Tables.

Other writers have done real justice to this subject, of course. There’s Sam Kean’s terrific 2010 book , The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. There’s Theo Gray’s absolutely gorgeous collection of photographs in The Elements. And from this year’s book list, there’s Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ elegant cultural history, Periodic Tables.

And always, always, Tom Lehrer‘s wonderful elements song”:

Perhaps I’m just not entertaining enough for my teenage audience. Or perhaps the problem is just that I’m his chemistry nut of a parent.  “Now look at this box right next to lead (Pb! Plumbing!)”, I say. “Tl, that’s thallium. Incredibly cool poison. Almost perfect if you wanted to kill someone. Except for one thing. Guess what that is?”

Silence. Minor eye roll. My son knows I’m going to tell him anyway. “It makes your hair fall out,” I explain. “Back in the 1930s, they used to put it into depilatory creams, you know, that women used to get rid of their mustaches and all. But pretty soon those women would be sick and then they’d go completely bald.”

“I’ll bet they looked like Coach _______.” This being a reference to a shiny-headed physical education teacher who, according to middle school sources, polished his head with bowling ball wax. “Really! When Coach shook his head people saw little chunks of wax falling onto the floor!”

There’s really no point as a parent in trying to dispute these school mythologies. Plus I don’t actually want to know about the chunks. “Well, I don’t think these poor women put bowling ball wax on their heads,” I say. “And anyway if we don’t focus on learning these elements, you won’t have time to do anything else.”

The periodic table is an attempt by scientists to impose order on the chemical dance of the elements, how they interact, bond together, and break apart, build life and destroy it. Someone like me – a science story teller rather than a scientist – sees it also as a story, our story, in fact. The scrawl of chemical graffiti also serves as a guide to our own history, to our chemical explorations of the world, to mistakes made, lessons learned.

“So Ra (number 88) is radium, right? And when it was discovered (pause to look this up, turns out to be 1898) people thought of it like a tiny, glowing sun that we’d dug out of the ground. They put it into health drinks and little candies and never even thought that swallowing something radioactive might be bad for you.”

“When did they figure it out?” he asks. This is a child of the atomic era, after all, and he’s been taught for years about plutonium, uranium (U, number 92), grown up in the shadow of the bomb, in our modern angst over radiation. “Were they just dumb?”

“They really didn’t know until they started using it in all these things and people started to die, really in the 1920s, so it took a couple decades. It takes us a while to figure these things out.” It’s the figuring out, the exploration, that tends to fascinate me and I’ve written about the rather scandalous history of radium on this blog and in my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook.

“No,” he declares. “They were just dumb.” I remind myself that at least his head isn’t on the table and that – since he maintains that he really is my child – all his annoying qualities are undoubtedly inherited from my husband rather than myself.

This thought cheers me up enough that I’m unfazed by his declaration that xenon (Xe, number 54) is the best element in the table due to its connection to the old sci-fi series, Xena the Warrior Princess, which is A LOT cooler than really dumb people poisoning themselves with radium.

He nods in triumph. And I nod back. I don’t smile; I don’t dance around the table congratulating myself on the fact that he’s learning the Periodic Table. I just continue onto the next element. And quietly polish my registered Dweeb glasses.

(Note: This is an updated (and, of course, much better version of an earlier post in honor of the International Year of Chemistry.)

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