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The Periodic Table of The Elements: A Real-Life Miracle of Science

ByScott AsakawaNOVA EducationNOVA Education

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In Cambridge, Massachusetts, right near the MIT campus, there’s a great little bar called “Miracle of Science.”  It’s as if someone took everything from my science-outreach-filled dreams and made it a reality.  Each delicious dish served up by the kitchen has a corresponding chemical symbol, and the menu looks, for the most part, like a periodic table.  The veggie burger, for instance, has the symbol “Vb,” and can be found in the second column, where, as it happens, the alkaline earth metals would be in a real periodic table.  I love this place.  It’s like concentrated nerdiness mixed with good food and drink, and in my life, there’s not much sweeter, particularly given that one of my main outreach projects is an informal education model known as the “ Science Café .”

While Miracle of Science uses clever themes to build its menu and décor, their periodic table, unfortunately, can’t hold a candle to the power and majesty of the real one.  The true, Mendeleev periodic table, in all its form and glory, teaches us an incredible amount about the world we live in.  It shows us not only that ours is a world comprised of constituent elements, that those elements fall into families, and that each member of a family shares characteristics with its relatives, but (and here’s the kicker), it also gives us clues as to

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why elements behave the way they do.  Learning to read the periodic table is like learning to read music.  It represents not just the individual chemical substances that make up our world, but the nature of the relationships between them.  If you know how the elements relate to each other, you can use them, like notes on a staff, to create what some might call harmony.

NOVA’s series, Hunting The Elements (funded, in part, by the Department of Energy ) , is about understanding those harmonies and how they make up the chemical roots of our world.  Host David Pogue takes us on a journey where we investigate some of our most familiar substances, and learn how the theoretical basis of the periodic table can be applied to them.  We learn about gold, salt, plant fertilizer, and more.  Through it all, we stay close to Mendeleev’s chart, and learn how it serves as a guide to explain much about the daily processes we take for granted.