Brief musings on ‘elemental relations’


Source: Royal Society of Chemistry/Murray Robertson

Originally, I had just wanted to write a quick project update before setting off to my first conference, but then I stumbled upon something that I think would be a more fitting contribution to the blog. This ‘something’ was an image from an online exhibition called ‘Visual Elements’ which is part of the Royal Society of Chemistry website. The artist Murray Robertson visualises each of the elements of the periodic table through associations that surround them.
Chemist David Watson writes in his introduction to this new kind of periodic table:

‘The icons used to represent each element are just the surface representation of something that is ultimately unknowable in its entirety. However, the surfaces of these symbols have an arcane aspect which makes us want to look deeper, to experience the element as a living symbol rather than a list of numbers: such as boiling point , atomic radius, first ionisation potential, valency, charge density.’

He also talks about the background of the project: the wish to tell stories through these images and thus make these elements less like something that just scientists engage with behind closed doors.
The illustration for the noble gas neon, which I had come across during my web search, reminded me of the last Mutable Matter workshop where a participant talked about neon being something ‘scientific’, but also ‘kitsch’ at the same time. But most of all, the images and Watson’s introduction made me wonder what Primo Levi would have thought about them.

Levi was Jewish-Italian chemist and writer who survived the Holocaust. In the seventies he wrote a book called ‘The Periodic Table’ in which he talks about his life through matter – a sort of chemical autobiography. The degree to which Levi bonded with the materials he worked with for most of his life and to which he associated them with key moments or people in his life, is astonishing – at least for a non-chemist like me! I am not entirely sure whether Levi also thinks of non-chemists when he writes that ‘every element says something to someone (something different to each)…’ Do you or I have an element we feel drawn to? It is interesting to think about this.

Levi actually makes one exception: carbon. He believes that it is so omni-present that it is very difficult to bond with it, or, as he expresses it, it is ‘not specific, in the same way that Adam is not specific as an ancestor’. Surprisingly, Levi admits a strong empathy with carbon.

‘To carbon, the element of life, my first literary dream was turned, insistently dreamed in an hour and a place when my life was not worth much: yes, I wanted to tell the story of an atom of carbon.’

Levi then talks about how, at the time when he thought about the carbon atom as a ‘character’, scientists were not able to ‘see’ atoms and how, to him, it existed despite experimental proof. Thus, having worked his way from argon to vanadium, he proceeds to the last chapter of his book – the semi-fictional journey of his carbon.

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