elemental arts

Artistejenluc_2We have been uncharacteristically silent the past several days, but after a rash of deadlines and super-long blog posts — including my latest "Random Walks" column over at 3 Quarks Daily on why certain people fear Harry Potter, not to mention an extensive Q&A over at LabLit.com — quite frankly, we needed a bit of "me time"… specifically, a break from writing. The time off proved quite refreshing, and we return to Cocktail Party Physics feeling rested and invigorated, with a bunch of interesting posts in the works, slated to appear over the next week.

We’re especially glad that we didn’t entirely miss National Chemistry Week, particularly the chance to mark the occasion by playing a few rounds of the online kids game, Avogadro’s Element Hunt. Sure, we’re technically a physics blog, but my definition of "physics" is a bit looser and all-encompassing than most; I’d argue there’s a tiny bit of physics in just about anything. That’s certainly true of the periodic table, the elemental mainstay of chemistry, and the focus of a nifty graphic in this week’s New York Times.

The image in question details a new spiral model for the periodic table, the brainchild of one Jeff Moran, who owns a software company, Electric Prism, based in Woodstock, New York. Actually, the design isn’t all that new. I met Moran many years ago through a close mutual pal, and he described his periodic spiral design to me at great length. I was initially skeptical (which may have had something to do with downing several glasses of wine over dinner), until he emailed me the working design, at which point I became genuinely intrigued. But other science-writing stuff intervened, computers were replaced, that email was lost, and Moran’s fascinating project disappeared into the flotsam and jetsam littering my brain (I am often in need of a brisk mental tidy), only to re-emerge from long-term memory storage this week with the sight of his periodic spiral in the pages of the Old Gray Lady.

To understand what’s so interesting about Moran’s spiral design, one needs a solid grasp of how our current periodic table evolved. It is simply the ordering of all chemical elements in
such a way as to clearly demonstrate the periodicity of their chemical
and physical properties. An element, you may recall from childhood science classes, is any substance that cannot be broken down into simpler substances through ordinary chemical reactions — the application of acids, for example, or zapping said element with electricity. The elements are the basic building blocks of nature, akin to how letters
in the alphabet are the fundamental components of written language. The Big Names have been known since antiquity: gold, silver, tin, copper, lead and mercury, most notably. The discovery of phosphorus in 1649 by Hennig Brand launched a renaissance of elemental advances over the next 200 years. And as the number of elements increased, perceptive scientists began to note striking patterns in their properties, and to develop classification schemes accordingly.

For instance, there was the "law of triads," developed by Johann Dobereiner in the early 19th century. He noticed that the atomic weight of strontium fell in between those of calcium and barium, and that all three elements showed similar chemical properties. He found more such "triads" over the next 12 years, and concluded that all elements formed triads, with the middle element’s properties being an average of the other two trial members when ordered by atomic weight. This wasn’t quite right, as subsequent investigations revealed relationships between chemical relationships extending beyond Dobereiner’s triads. (In 1863, the English chemist John Newlands proposed a "Law of Octaves," having noticed that there were many pairs of similar elements  whose atomic weights were various multiples of eight. His law predicted that any given element would exhibit similar properties to the eighth element following it in Newlands’ version of a periodic table.)

A French geologist named A.E. Beguyer de Chancourtois was the first to recognize that elemental properties seemed to be related to their atomic weights, and that such properties tended to recur every several elements. He assembled a rough chart — the first attempt at a periodic table, which he published in 1862 — based on this observation, and used it to make predictions about the properties of several metallic oxides. Again, his attempt wasn’t perfect: his chart included a few ions and compounds, which he mistook for elements.

These were just the first rudimentary attempts at developing a scientifically accurate classification scheme. There’s a bit of a running academic debate about who deserves credit for our modern method of classifying the chemical elements. The dark horse candidate is a German chemist named Lothar Meyer, who wrote a textbook in 1864 that included an abbreviated version recognizable as our periodic table. Meyer listed half of the known elements in accordance with their atomic weight, and four years later extended that table considerably.  But his work didn’t appear in a scientific publication until 1870. So in general, the honor is ascribed to Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, a 19th century professor of general chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg in Russia, whose similar approach — working independently of Meyer — was published in 1869.Mendeleev_1

Mendeleev faced a common frustration among university educators throughout the ages: the dearth of good textbooks in his field. So he wrote his own, On the Relationship of the Properties of the Elements to their Atomic Weights, and this textbook contained a helpful chart listing the known elements by their atomic weight. (By this time, scientists had "discovered" more than 60 elements; today there are significantly more, most recently Element 118.) The elements were placed in horizontal rows, and Mendeleev noticed that — if he left a few blanks in his makeshift table — those with similar chemical properties appeared at regular intervals in vertical columns on the table. He boldly predicted that new, as-yet-undiscovered elements would eventually fill in the blanks, and used his "periodic table" to predict their chemical properties. He was certainly right about the additional elements: gallium appeared in 1875, scandium in 1879, and germanium in 1886. And their respective chemical properties meshed nicely with Mendeleev’s earlier predictions. His work very nearly garnered a Nobel Prize in 1906.

That’s not to say Mendeleev’s table, and accompanying theory, was perfect. Only seven of his 10 predicted missing elements were discovered: those with atomic weights 45, 146, and 175 just don’t exist. Eventually scientists realized that ordering the elements according to atomic weight didn’t always work, particularly when the first noble gases were discovered, beginning with argon in 1895. For instance the atomic weight of argon (a largely non-reactive element) would place it in the same group as highly active solids like lithium and sodium. The British physicist Henry Moseley confirmed in 1913 that an element’s chemical properties were only roughly related to atomic weight, and what really counted was the number of electrons (the atomic number). Moseley figured out how to measure the number of electrons using X-rays. Further advances in the early 20th century demonstrated the organization of electrons: filling the various "shells" or "orbitals" around an atomic nucleus from the lowest energy state outward, gives rise to the various material properties. And the elements have been arranged according to atomic number ever since.

Mendeleev based his periodic table design on his favorite card game (an early form of Patience), and it’s certainly proven to be the most enduringly popular approach to elemental classification. But it’s a bit awkward in places, specifically in the way it treats the groups of elements known as the lanthanons and actinons. They huddle in a long rectangular box just under the main table, like high school outcasts exiled to a separate table, apart from the all the mainstream students and "cool kids" on the block. The only serious contender for an alternative design is the periodic spiral, which preserves the ordering of elements by atomic weight, as well as the primary three color-coded groupings of blocks, groups and periods. But it tries to integrate the poor lanthanons and actinons, and also attempts to graphically represent hydrogen’s relationship to a myriad of elements.

Moran isn’t the first to design a periodic spiral: Edgar Longman proposed on in 1951, followed by a different spiral design in 1960, proposed by O. Theodor Bentley. But he’s digitized his version. In the ensuing years since our SoHo dinner, Moran and his collaborators have produced an impressive educational software package called Periodic Spiral. Rather than leafing through hundreds of pages of dense, dry text on the various chemical elements, students can simply click on the appropriate element box on the Periodic Spiral program — say, mercury — and a submenu appears that enables them to learn more about that element’s history, properties, applications, and such. There’s also a rich lode of fun facts about each element. For instance, liquid mercury is so dense, it’s possible to float bars of lead on top of it. Aspiring prospectors will be intrigued to learn there’s gold in them thar newborn baby toenails. Students can learn what elements are present in human blood; that the body is two-thirds oxygen; or the history and composition of precious coinage metals.

There’s something elegantly artistic about Moran’s spiral approach to the elements. The periodic table has also inspired Theodore Gray to merge his scientific interests with his more artistic inclinations. Gray is a co-founder of Wolfram Research, which markets the flagship Mathematica software. But he also has some interesting hobbies, most notably the construction an actual table representing all the elements. It was made of walnut, with inlaid squares for all the elements topping special compartments containing samples of those same elements — at least "those that don’t explode, emit dangerous levels of radiation, vanish in an instant, or are otherwise unstable," according to a recent article in The News-Gazette.  The quirky project netted him an Ig Nobel Prize, and he followed it up with a wall-sized Periodic Table cabinet for display at DePauw University in Indiana, as well as smaller versions for schools and businesses.Iophoto

In the process, Gray collected more than 1000 element samples, which he photographed over the course of four years in various creative ways. Eventually he assembled the best graphic for each element into a visually striking periodic table poster, now available for order online. Titanium is represented by the rotor from a jet engine; radium by a glowing watch face; and tin by an antique tin soldier. His representation for iodine is pictured at left. Forget science, "This is art," Gray told The News-Gazette.

Indeed, Gray’s photos are all striking, and artistically rendered. But if we’re talking about the pinnacle of elemental art, the master of melding the science of chemistry with artistic achievement would have to be one of my favorite contemporary painters: Nash Hyon. There’s precious little information available about Hyon on the Web, but she seems to be located somewhere in the Northeast (most likely Connecticut), and a few relevant biographical facts can be gleaned from the press generated by her rare gallery showings. (You can view samples of Hyon’s work here, courtesy of Silver Mine Art Gallery.)

Hyon had a thriving career as a graphic artist, photographer and decorative painter, but in 1992, her beloved husband, Ty, died suddeny from advanced cancer. Her grief propelled Hyon from photography back into painting, in search of some form of cathartic outlet for her emotional turmoil. At first, she employed traditional oil-based paints, augmented by selected additives and unconventional tools to create haunting pieces with collage-like features. But she was dissatisfied with the resulting surfaces, and oil paint didn’t always combine well with her bits of collage. A 1994 trip to Italy rekindled her interest in frescoes and other ancient techniques, including encaustics: the process of applying molten wax colors to a surface to create textured images or patterns, which dates back 2000 years, at least. Early Egyptian and Roman wax portraits relied on encaustic techniques, and the 20th century artists Jasper Johns and Mauricio Toussaint also experimented with the process.

It’s actually quite easy to make a basic encaustic mixture: just add the chosen pigments to heated beeswax, which serves as the binder, and apply to a prepared surface, whether it be wood, canvas or plaster. (More advanced recipes may contain other types of waxes, resin, or linseed oil.) Metal tools and specially designed brushes can then be used to shape or sculpt the waxy paint before it cools. It’s also relatively easy to embed other materials, like Hyon’s collage elements, into the waxy layered surface. Heat those same metal tools, and the artist can manipulate the wax even after it cools onto the surface. Modern artists who use encaustics have also been known to make use of heat lamps, heat guns, and other instruments to further extend the time frame in which the wax can be manipulated.

Encaustic techniques gave Hyon the textured, layered, surface quality she was looking for, Iodine
giving her paintings "an archaeological quality, expressing the history of the process and the passage of time," according to one gallery write-up. "The transparent wax is painted over an underpainting that becomes… a metaphor for the many layers of remembered experiences which fade over time." For the past several years, Hyon has been diligently working on a series of paintings called "The Elements." It’s a cycle of abstract "portraits" of specific chemical elements, containing symbolic references to the properties, history, or other quirky details associated with each.

At right, for example, is Hyon’s take on "Iodine."
The purplish color is inspired by the fact that the element is named after the Greek word for "purple." Note that there are 53 (go ahead, count ’em!) small rectangular bars at the edges of the frame, reflecting iodine’s atomic number. Similarly, "Copper" includes an inner border of bright blue-green to evoke the oxidized state of the metal, while "Tin" resembles the interior of a tin can, unrolled into a flat sheet along the canvas. Her Grand Plan is to complete small 12" by 12" studies for all the
naturally occurring elements, and full-sized 36" by 36" paintings of at
least 28 of those.

I had the privilege of viewing Hyon’s work on the element series firsthand back in 2002, when she was among the featured artists at an exhibit called "The Beauty of Phenomena," sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. There were striking works by Eric Heller, Felice Frankel, and Sidney Nagel in the exhibit, as well as the strangely contorted topological structures springing from the vivid imagination of mathematician-turned-sculptor Helamon Ferguson. All the featured artists were undeniably gifted and demonstrated a unique way of looking at the world. But Hyon’s work stood out for me as particularly transcendent, easily moving beyond scientific visualization into the realm of timeless, emotionally evocative art.

Technically, I attended the NAS exhibit on assignment for Discover, but my original review perhaps focused a bit too much on Hyon’s work: the editor chopped it down to photo caption length, and chose to focus instead on Heller, primarily because his images were drawn from actual scientific research. I understood the rationale behind the decision: Discover is first and foremost a science magazine, after all, and Hyon’s pieces merely had a scientific theme. But I always regretted that Hyon didn’t get the attention I felt she richly deserved. One elemental painting in particular has continued to haunt me more than four years later: a canvas entitled "Gandolinium," a contrast agent used in MRIs. (The spelling is problematic; I’ve seen it as "gadolinium" and "gaudolinium" as well.) Hyon used one of her late husband’s MRIs as the basis for the painting, layering her encaustics and various collage elements over it. The piece brought tears to me eyes the first time I saw it. In fact, I’d be tempted to buy it, were such things within my budget. But for Hyon, that piece is probably priceless.


14 thoughts on “elemental arts”

  1. Thanks for the link to Gray’s periodic table. I had come across it before, but had lost it.
    I can’t figure out why the Moran (and then the Times, and then you) used “lanthanons” and “actinons”. They’ve appeared in the literature, but they’re so nonstandard that a quick survey of several chemists (including myself) found that none of them had even heard the terms. I don’t know whay he didn’t used lanthanides/actinides (the standard and found in intro chem books) or lanthanoids/actinoids (common and recommended by IUPAC).
    I have to say, I’m not particularly enthralled with Moran’s periodic spiral. It clears up the relationship of hydrogen with the halogens and alkali metals? I’m not sure how, since it is now in equal contact with several unrelated elements. It incoporates the lanthanides and actinides? Yes, but so can the periodic table:
    There are a number of alternative designs, including other spirals, that make much more sense than this honeycomb pattern with its not entirely clear flow and large gaps.

  2. Well, mostly I took the path of least resistance and used the phrasings in the Times article, hence lanthanons and actinons. That’s how these things propagate, especially over the Internet. If anyone can clear up the spelling issues of gadolinium, please do!
    As for Moran’s design, note the use of the words “tries” and “attempts”. I’ve always found it intriguing, but rather difficult to navigate, myself. The real appeal from my perspective is in his software, particularly the pop-up fun facts… really quite an ingenious approach.

  3. The remark in the LabLit interview about tarot cards reminded me of an old joke — I think it comes from Steven Wright. “Last night my friends and I were playing poker with tarot cards,” the comedian says. “I got a full house and seven people died.”

  4. Hopefully this is not too far off point.
    Back in the early ’60s British High School chemistry lab was considerably more hands-on than it is today. Basically, be careful, wash hands well afterwards, and use the hood if you think it might explode or emit noxious gases. Or not. My chem teacher believed in what he called “bucket chemistry”. No 5cc test tubes for him, no Sir!.
    But the mention of mercury brought up a fun memory – I wonder if one can actually get ones hands on the ingredients today? I am talking about a fun experiment called the “Mercury Heart”. take a 5″ concave shallow dish. Fill it to 1/2 its diameter with mercury. Cover the mercury with moderately dilute H2SO4. Ad a pinch of Potassium Iodide (or was it permanganate? It was purple, anyway). introduce an iron needle horizontally through the pot. so its tip just touches the side of the mecury blob. The blob immediately starts beating, oscillating through two triangular shapes with the needle in the center of a side on one of the null motion points.
    So, how many bits dropped in that 40 yr old memory? Visually sharp, details slightly fuzzy, but I learned something that stuck because I did it myself, not just a passive observer. And I would like to see it again, capture an AVI of it.
    Yes, Stephen Wright. still going strong, still as dry as ever.

  5. Hey, constructive critique of my presentation isn’t off-limits. Posts aren’t always as polished as one might hope… part of the appeal and dangers of blogging. 🙂 and thanks for clearing up the gadolinium confusion!

  6. If I may be permitted to mention a few off-topic observations:
    Nice job on the “Random Walks” article. The Salem witch trials never fail to fascinate, and your summary was very good, especially your tying that period with modern day attempts at book-banning and the current political environment. Human nature definitely hasn’t changed.
    Regarding your LabLit interview, as a non-scientist I appreciate and enjoy your writing style immensely. In fact, I bought your first book some months ago (can’t let the cat go hungry!), but decided to bump it up in the “reading queue.” I love all the cultural references, which I can get (except for several TV shows, which is why I don’t think “The Physics of Buffyverse” would work for me). These trip-wire references help form mental images and bring the past and present together nicely. My only “complaint,” if you can call it that, is that I find I’m yanking out my science encyclopedia or googling for a more indepth explanation of whatever or whomever. It just makes reading a little slower, but you make it fun…so far at least. (Haven’t finished it yet.)
    Also, I’m wondering how your Calculus lessons are going. I get the Teaching Company catalogues in the mail, which include free CD samples. I recently listened to Professor Richard Wolfson talk for a half hour on “Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution,” and “Muons and Time-Travelling Twins.” Being that I’ve decided that a lot of science information doesn’t stick in my brain without the structure of classes and tests (it’s been well over a decade since the last science class), I took notes and drew pictures during the instruction. I was suprised that I felt I could get what he was discussing, and going back to my notes a few days later, I found I retained the information. I thought about buying the set of Wolfson’s lecture and “The Joy of Science,” but haven’t decided if I want to shell out $ for the DVD or CD. Do you feel a DVD helps you better? Wolfson does speak a bit fast, so perhaps rewind on a DVD would be easier.
    Since you often link to Wikipedia, 3 Quarks Daily linked to an article that might be of interest to present and ex-Wikipedians (there was also a long article about Wikipedia in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly):
    BTW, your punctuation when used with quotes is top-notch. 😉

  7. For TBB: Glad you enjoyed the Harry Potter commentary; I nobly refrained from mentioning an episode from Season 3 of BUFFY (“Gingerbread”) that struck similar themes. 🙂
    As for the “Black Bodies” book, the physics and other stuff therein IS extremely truncated; it’s not meant to go into the science in great depth, merely to spark an interest in learning more in otherwise physics-phobic folks… believe it or not, there ARE some people who found some of the science rough going, even in its abbreviated form. Check out some of the books listed in my enormous bibliography in the back; many of those would give you the additional detail you crave. Like any writer, I’m often my own harshest critic, and there are definitely essays in the book I felt could have been better. But that’s because I was learning as I was writing it, trying to develop a new prose style and approach that would appeal more to non-scientists. In particular, I didn’t really do justice to the genius and personality of Michael Faraday; fortunately a new excellent biography has just been published, which I have on order from Amazon.
    The big advatage of the Teaching Company’s DVD packages is that they come with a printed transcript of all the lectures. So you don’t have to constantly replay anything if you need to do some fact-checking or quick refreshment of your memory, or if the instructor simply talks too fast. They’re not fancy, or showy, and I have some minor quibbles with the calculus ones (detailed in a prior post), but on the whole I’m really enjoying the lectures.

  8. Thanks, TBB, for that Chronicle link. As an ex-Wikipede moving on to other ways of spreading knowledge (scary organ music here, please), I appreciate the information.
    I’m glad to hear our gracious hostess is still enjoying the calculus lessons! =)

  9. Jennifer, yes, your bibliography is overwhelming! And you have a great list of Internet links as well–I might never leave the house again, thank you. 🙂 I’m not so much “physics-phobic” as that I feel so rusty and wish I could go back to school; your book (and blog) makes physics look attractive.
    Blake, I think you might enjoy the more in-depth article about Wikipedia in The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Hive.” Grab it while it’s now online:
    There was also an earlier interview with its author in August: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200608u/poe-interview
    The article I linked to earlier today and the AM one above both emphasize the quality of science-related articles on Wikipedia in comparison to other subjects. This says a lot about those contributors and the effort they put into Wikipedia. As you well know, it’s an often thankless task that brings little notoriety to its authors as the rest of us blithely click and link away. I have no doubt that you put countless hours into Wikipedia and contributed much to it, so **thanks** from one of the consumers out there, and good luck with your new endeavors, which I hope bring you deserved credit! 🙂

  10. I believe that it is quite confusing to ours beginning scientist to learn different versions of periodic table. The modern representation was adopted in order to simplify the complex rearrangement. Luckily, nobody modifies the seven exiting periods that everybody knew. Please, don’t confuse us; the periodic table is confusing enough!

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