Periodically Crazy

The past week, 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? – 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.

“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 crud off my 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.

“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 of the Elements resembles on first glance a neatly 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.

In other words, 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 – reads it a little differently. 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) and the shadowy threat of nuclear weapons. “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.”

“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.

I don’t laugh and I don’t dance around the table, congratulating myself on the fact that he’s learning the Periodic Table.   I just sit back,  smile, and continue onto the next element. And, of course, quietly polish my registered Dweeb glasses.

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29 Responses to Periodically Crazy

  1. anthony wong says:

    sometimes, it is best not to give them the answers. let them find out for themselves, if they want to. dont spoon feed them so much. they will appreciate things more if they have to work for it.

  2. Julie says:

    I’m almost done with The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. Good read for someone learning the PT- he relates his experiences in chemistry to WWII (during and after). Its something creative people would appreciate very much because he ties interesting characteristics of the elements into everyday life. He is able to create philosophical plays on words (is that the right term?) relating life to a chemical principal. You should check it out if you haven’t.

  3. Scicurious says:

    Somehow I think I would be a LOT better at the Periodic table if you’d taught it to me rather than my chem teacher! I think that’s all fascinating. But I also admit I had to grow into it…

    OH HEY! Have you ever done a series of all the elements and their histories and why they are named that way?! It’d be SO COOL

  4. Deborah Blum says:

    I’ve kind of grown into the Periodic Table too, at least seeing it as a landscape of really good stories. I have thought about doing a series – not ALL elements – but the ones like antimony (Sb) whose symbols need some explaining or just the ones that have backstories that I find particularly fascinating. Sam Kean’s book, The Disappearing Spoon, does some of this really well.

  5. Deborah Blum says:

    I’ve been meaning to read that book – thanks for reminding me!

  6. Deborah Blum says:

    Good point. And it builds better habits for college, of course. I’m always trying to find the right balance on this one.

  7. David / Abel says:

    Somewhere around the ether, someone put up a periodic table of science blogging. I recall that I claimed Pb for “Pharmboy.”

    Yes, your son would roll his eyes at me as well.

  8. Deborah Blum says:

    Pharmboy is much cooler than Plumbum. Much. So totally works for me.

  9. Julie H. says:

    Interesting! I was finally useful this week after four years of high school as Liv is taking Anat and Phys. “Mom, you were actually helpful” Cold comfort.

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  11. mangrist says:

    I need to introduce you to my Mendeleyev maniac of a daughter.

  12. Tracy says:

    I cannot contain the chem nerd in me…some people think a periodic table tattoo is crazy. I love it!
    http://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?pid=43373402&id=16919492&ref=fbx_album

  13. Cassie Rodenberg says:

    I would be this same sort of parent — chemistry is far too wondrous for head-clunking on the table! (says the woman with a Periodic Table belt…)

    I second the Primo Levi “Periodic Table” recommendation; it’s a well-loved masterpiece on my shelf! Who couldn’t love a memoir with chapters divided by elements?

  14. Cassie Rodenberg says:

    Also have to note that I sign every email “Cr,” though not one person has noticed in my television network world…have to represent the chemist in me.

  15. Deborah Blum says:

    Just realized after reading your message that I could actually be Db (dubnium). But somehow it’s just not as cool as chromium!

  16. Julie says:

    It occurred to me not too long ago that the current Russian leader has a name very close to the name of the founder of the periodic table. I was reading the paper and saw the name “Dmitry Medvedev” and thought- isn’t that “Dmitri Mendeleev”?

    Maybe both first and last names are very common in Russian culture. Still- seemed a strange coincidence. (unless it is like John Smith in our culture)

  17. Aurora says:

    Like Scicurious, I too get the feeling I’d have learnt (and enjoyed) a lot more about the Periodic Table if you’d been teaching it to me… and the idea of a book telling these stories is a great one!
    Oh, and congratulations on the title – when I saw it, I was so curious I just had to click it.

  18. Lab Rat says:

    Oh man this article takes me back! When I was a young girl my family used to go hiking a lot – me and my sister would pass the time by playing games that usually involved fighting dragons, or defeating evil sorcerers and occasionally my dad would stop us both and point to a valley that looked like every other valley and point out that that was made millions of years ago, by ice. ice! Were we not wonderfully excited and as amazed as he was?

    Cue polite “yes daddy, ice, how interesting” and then back to the dragons.

    I still remember most of it though; U shaped valleys, drumlins, glacier action and nowadays I find it really fascinating to know. Even though at the time I remember just hoping the explanation would be quick so we could get back to our exciting game.

    It’s just part of the Code of Children: “everything your parents say is Not Cool” :p

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  20. jeconnery says:

    The young man should, in fact, be pleased that his mother isn’t dweebish enough to know that Xena was fantasy/mythology… not sci-fi. Tsk tsk, Deb. ;)

    And what’s this about calling Xena “old?” She was on TV when *I* was learning the periodic table! That was only 10 years ago. No. Wait… 13 years… no, wait….. Aw geez!

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