Back when I was an impressionable youngster chemistry seemed like a lot of fun. Acids, open flame, liquids cool to the touch that bubble over when you mix them… As an adult I still have some interest in your basic household chemistry, but any thoughts of a career in chemistry got stomped out of me when I went from lab to lecture. Balancing chemical equations and counting electrons got old real fast.
Hunting the Elements is a recent episode of Nova that almost made me regret my choices. The episode is a two hour documentary on the table of elements and presents it in a real and exciting way. It pulls you in with ‘real world chemistry’ but it manages to lay down some actual basic chemistry education in an interesting way. (Probably because it had a higher production budget than most text books.)
The organization of the segments throughout the episode is a bit haphazard from a scientific point of view but it does the work of a showman in pulling you in and keeping you interested. It starts out with a trip to a gold mine and takes you through the process as they pull huge dumptruck loads of soil out of the mine and refine each load down to a tiny nugget (approximately one gram of gold per heaping truck full of soil) and end up with a refined gold ingot worth $1.5 million.
Gold may not be the best place to start a discussion of the periodic table, but it’s certainly the most eye catching sequence and does the job of catching your attention. Other highlights include a sequence on combustion (lots of stuff blowing up and some cool high speed photography of it), a physical representation of the periodic table (with samples of each element), and visiting a lab where they’re manufacturing new elements.
The unifying theme of the episode is the periodic table itself. It’s digitally superimposed on random surfaces throughout the nearly two hour episode. It’s a bit distracting at times, but it does serve to recenter viewer attention after each sequence. Most of the major elemental groups are covered through the course of the episode and the host provides a succinct explanation of the periodic tables structure that brought back the fundamentals I learned back in Chemistry 101 and would probably be a good overview for people who haven’t seen the periodic table since high school (or for high school students seeing it for the first time).
I think the biggest problem with the episode is the humor. There are several extended scenes meant to be comedic and the host gets off some real groaners, much to the fake chagrin of the actual scientists. It may be my imagination, but I think the eye roll inducing humor is intentional. As annoying as it is, the humor grounds the episode and reminds the viewers that science isn’t some mystical subject akin to magic. I just wish they hadn’t let some of the comedic moments go on for so long.
Overall I really enjoyed it. It was educational but it moved quickly enough to keep from being overly boring. It was structured in a way that grabbed your attention and moved from the more exciting visual subjects (gold mining) to the less concepts that are less visually impressive but more exciting in their potential (making new elements). I recommend it for any novice in the chemistry field, and I think it would make great viewing for a high school chemistry class. I’d make my own kids watch it if they didn’t have the attention span of four year olds (though the explosions do appeal to a four year old boy).
You can watch the episode over at PBS.org, but I don’t guarantee how long that will last. They also have an iPad app and some teaching games on their website. There’s also a fun interactive periodic table here.