The Mystery of Matter


This 1279th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 27, 2015.


One day a few weeks ago I noticed in the television schedule a three-hour program that evening on Channel 17 called The Mystery of Matter. I decided to watch and that was one of the best decisions I have made in recent years. Those three hours were among the finest I have ever enjoyed watching TV.


This unheralded program -- I recall no prior advertising -- should be made available to every senior high school that teaches chemistry and every middle school that offers general science. I recommend its purchase for school and public libraries.


As the sub-title of this three-part series indicates, it is about "The Search for the Elements," those 118 chemical entities of Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table. The first episode titled "Out of Thin Air" is about the period 1754-1806 and focuses on the contrasting approaches to science of the British Joseph Priestly, who experimented widely but in this seemingly hit-and-miss process turned up important findings, and the French Antoine Lavoisier, whose accurate measurements led to his own discoveries and refutation of accepted theory. Then Humphrey Davy applied electricity in his own search for fundamental chemical units.


The second episode, "Unruly Elements (1859-1902)," begins with Mendeleev's invention of the periodic table but then focuses on Marie and Pierre Curie, who followed up on Antoine Henri Becquerel's discovery of radioactivity to discover radioactive elements.


The final hour, "Into the Atom (1910-1960)," is devoted to Henry Moseley's justification of Mendeleev's table through use of X-ray spectroscopy and Glenn Seaborg's discovery though use of powerful new equipment of transuranium elements that fit uncomfortably but finally extend the table in a new direction to lead to its completion.


Although the stories focus on the lives and contributions of these major figures, other outstanding scientists make brief appearances. Hardly bit players in the history of science, they include: Alchemist Hennig Brandt who, when searching for gold, discovered phosphorus in the mid-17th century. Joseph Black, who found that there were different components in air. And a long list of other element discoverers led by Daniel Rutherford, nitrogen and Henry Cavendish, hydrogen. Here too are Louis Pasteur, James Watt, Alessandro Volta and two teachers whose support of the series protagonists' work wavered. Marie Curie's doctoral mentor, Gabriel Lippman, only nominated her husband Pierre for a Nobel Prize, despite the fact that Marie led the research. Pierre corrected that and they received the award jointly; Marie won another later. Henry Moseley and his lab partner, mathematician Charles G. Darwin, son of the famous evolutionist, had to talk their advisor, Ernest Rutherford into allowing them to carry on their work.


Of course we have had many fine science series on television. What was it about this one that so impressed me? There were a number of things:


*   Very high quality is maintained through every minute of the three hours. The ten years that went into the production is evident.


*    It would be very hard to pick a topic that is intrinsically more boring than that listing of elements that we call the Periodic Table: 1 H, 2 He, 3 Li, 4 Be, 5 B, 6 C, 7 N, 8 O, and on and on until you finally reach 117 Uus, and 118 Uuo. This program could easily have ended up comparable to a listing of the digits in pi. Instead many of those elements are brought to life through superb storytelling.


*    It would be easy to say that the seven principal characters are truly interesting. I suggest that just the opposite is true. I conjecture that only Humphrey Davy and perhaps Joseph Priestley would make interesting dinner partners for most of us. The rest would be talking over our heads. For example, the best you could probably get from Henry Moseley would be a discussion of gardening. But here his death leading troops in World War I ends an exciting career. Isaac Azimov called his death "arguably the greatest single loss of life in that war."


*    Finally, I must salute the narrator, Michael Emerson. I had to search to find his identity as he came across as a deeply knowledgeable scientist. Instead I find that he is an award-winning actor who invested himself in this role perfectly.-- Gerry Rising