Not to Be Tabled

I don't think you understand how I feel about the stove. David Clark, 2000. Photo by Conrad Erb.

Last month, students from a science journalism class at the University of Pennsylvania visited CHF to review our museum. It was their final assignment and an informal contest of sorts: CHF staff chose their favorite review for publication on Periodic Tabloid. The winning piece, Ben Guarino’s “Not to Be Tabled,” appears below. Guarino graduated from Penn in 2010 with a degree in bioengineering. He currently works at Penn’s Spine Pain Research Lab and has a special interest in science writing.--Ed.

Compared to the heaps of artifacts that ring the walls of Making Modernity, the permanent exhibit at the Museum at CHF, Elemental Matters at first appears spartan. But delve a little deeper and the works of art in this collection dissolve any sense of austerity into a rich, human perspective of the periodic table.

Within the sterile white of the Clifford C. Hach Gallery, a wall of rusted electric stove coils is the first piece that greets visitors. Up close, the coils highlight cooking as an act of chemistry. But take a step back, and they form the familiar angular arrangement of the periodic table. Clark’s work – titled I don’t think you understand the way I feel about the stove – demonstrates the way single elements get lost if the table is only viewed as a whole.

Susan Alexjander delivers an aural interpretation of the elements. Her Elements as Tone is the sonic recreation of a collapsing star. “All the natural elements,” explains Alexjander, “were created in the belly of an exploding, dying star. This recording renders frequencies from eight of the lightest, or first created, elements into sound.” Beginning subtly, the piece descends from the tinny, high E of hydrogen to the deep C/C# thrum of phosphorous.

A merry chirp occasionally interrupts these haunting tones. The beep draws patrons toward Kevin Jones’ Broadcasting to Unknown Points, a series of images digitally printed on aluminum. The sound is activated by an infrared motion sensor; the closer one gets to the prints, the louder the chirp becomes. Jones matches elemental symbols with familiar silhouettes on the prints themselves, but the reasoning behind his pairings are not always obvious. P (phosphorus), for example, is printed with a rooster’s spur. When asked for her interpretation, Megan Slater, one of the museum staff, suggests that one meaning could be to “challenge the authority of science.”

“You see it and ask, ‘What does it mean?’ It could be a conversation about nothing,” says Slater, “but before you know it, you’ve been standing here, talking, for ten minutes.”

Perhaps the most provoking work of Elemental Matters lies in the center of the gallery: a series of 118 woodcuts, etchings, silk screens and other prints, each one representing one element. The Periodic Table Printmaking Project is arranged exactly like its scientific inspiration. Ninety-seven printmakers, lead by artist Jennifer Schmitt, contributed to the table, and their depictions run from blackly humorous (for Kr, a grad student ingests krypton in the hopes of becoming a superhero) to abstract (silvery swirls for the rare Lr, lawrencium) to harrowing and beautiful (uranium’s print is a vase of flowers whose petals form a mushroom cloud). Schmitt says of her work, “I am the daughter of a chemistry-teacher mother and an artistic father. I grew up seeing beauty in science.” In Elemental Matters, thanks to visionaries like Schmitt, we all get to see beauty in science too.

The Museum at CHF is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 10-4. Elemental Matters closes December 16.

Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry [The Museum at CHF]
Elemental Matters [Chemical Heritage]
Elemental Matters Shines in Nature Review [CHF News]

Posted In: Education

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