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Why the periodic table makes my heart sing

In the global ballyhoo around the 150th anniversary of the Periodic Table, let’s not overlook the 60th anniversary of the most successful attempt to bring this feat of elemental accountancy to a wider audience.

Like everyone else, I am keen to celebrate the initiative of Martyn Poliakoff and his friend from St Andrews, David Cole Hamilton, in pushing for International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT) three years ago. Through approval from the UN and UNESCO, their spark of passion has been fanned by government support for national chemical societies into a blaze of global action by chemists of all levels, nationalities, and ages.

But, as I argued recently in Chemistry World, though IYPT is entirely laudable, I feel that chemists should think a little less about how to broadcast the periodic table and more about how to persuade the target audience to listen in the first place. 

Which brings me to the 60th anniversary of without doubt the smartest attempt to persuade a general audience to bask in the elemental joys of chemistry: The Elements, written in 1959 by Tom Lehrer. 

In his song the musical humorist and lecturer recites the names of all the chemical elements known at the time of writing, up to number 102, nobelium to the tune of the Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance.

"There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,"
Tom Lehrer

Importantly, his daft song is tailored to amuse and entertain the audience. Rather than slavishly order the elements according to the diktat of the periodic table, albeit updated from Dmitri Mendeleev’s original in 1869, Lehrer orders the elements to fit the meter of the song and deliver flawless end-rhymes – except, that is, for the last one. 

There is much alliteration before the jolly payoff, a tour de-force of patter written while he was a PhD candidate in mathematics at Harvard, which he playfully rhymes with “discarvard.”

"And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc, and rhodium, And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium. These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, And there may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered."
Tom Lehrer

During live performances, Lehrer would also parody his didactic peers: “I hope you’re all taking notes, because there’s going to be a short quiz next period!” He has just celebrated his 91st birthday and I suspect his modern peers are still more fixated by educating the public than engaging them in the first place. 

Lehrer’s light hearted Gilbert and Sullivan parody has taken on a life of its own, appearing in the world’s biggest comedy, The Big Bang Theory, along with many other TV shows (NCISGilmore Girls in the US, and, in the UK, Daniel Radcliffe famously sang it on The Graham Norton Show), a quirky version by Japanese schoolgirls, and a rival German version, Cancan des Elements

In the past year or two I have come across pharmaceutical variants by bestselling author and Lehrer fan Adam Kay to an updated version by Dame Mary Archer, the Science Museum’s Chair of the Board of Trustees, who updated it for a lecture at Imperial College London, ones by comedian Helen Arney, polymath Philip Ball and – of course – one by Sir Martyn too, along with a more eccentric version

In 1959, Lehrer dismissed The Elements as a “completely pointless” scientific song. Sixty years later, I beg to differ. His machine-honed, rapid-fire enunciation of 102 elements remains an enduring model of how to make chemistry engaging for a big audience.

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