Brain Pickings

BBC’s Volatile History of Chemistry

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How the elements came to be, or what alchemy and urine have to do with the God particle.

Chemistry is the science of matter, of everything we touch and, existential philosophy aside, of everything we are. And even though we brush up against it with every molecule of our bodies in every instant of our lives, most of us haven’t dedicated formal thought to it since high school. Now, thanks to the fine folks at BBC Four — who previously pondered such captivating issues as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is — you can refresh and enrich your understanding of this complex world with Chemistry: A Volatile History, a fascinating three-part series by theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, exploring everything from the history of the elements to the rivalries and controversies that bedeviled scientific progress to the latest bleeding-edge attempts to split matter.

In Part 1, Discovering the Elements, Al-Khalili tackles one of the greatest detective stories in the history of science, tracing the steps of the chemists who risked their lives to find and fight for the building blocks of our entire world.

Part 2, The Order of the Elements, explores the 19th century chemists who set out to make sense of the elements, from working out their exact number to plotting them in one of the most intricate and brilliant intellectual organizational systems of all time: the periodic table. All throughout, bitter disputes and explosive experiments inflict fascinating chaos on this ultimate quest for order.

Part 3, The Power of the Elements, uncovers the incredible passion and, often, heartache that went into chemists’ efforts to command the extreme forces of nature and combine elements to build the modern world. From last century’s dramatic breakthroughs to a riveting tour of modern-day alchemy across some of the world’s best chemistry labs, Al-Khalili’s story not only offers an illuminating history of this fundamental science, but also reinstills a profound awe for the complexity and whimsy of our world.

For more on the wonderful and fascinating world of chemistry, don’t forget The Elements, Theodore Grey’s impressive book and app, They Might Be Giants’ lovely Here Comes Science educational album for kids, and Lauren Redniss’s stunning cyanotype-illustrated story of Marie Curie’s science and romance.

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