It’s Elementalary.

So it turns out 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, which is a great way to ring out the old year and sing in the new–much better than a dining table since most people will spend New Year’s Eve standing around awkwardly holding plates and nibbling on appetizers while they wait for the ball to drop, but that’s another story. It was one hundred and fifty years ago that Dmitri Mendeleev first started putting elements in columns and rows, and that was before the invention of the computer spreadsheet which makes it an even more impressive feat. The elements themselves, of course, have been around a lot longer, except for the elements that have turned into other elements, which some have a strange tendency to do.
That reminds me of when I was a kid and got a chemistry set for Christmas. I was obsessed with chemistry. More specifically I was obsessed with crazy chemistry tricks. Most of my experiments began and ended with “let’s see what happens to this chemical when it’s set on fire” resulting in a lot of exploding test tubes and, at one point, an oily residue that settled over part of the garage. And I was obsessed with elements. More than anything I wanted a collection of samples of as many elements as I could safely store in a corner of the garage next to the oily rags and old paint cans, and some I couldn’t store safely. I made elaborate plans to extract pure sodium from salt and thorium from lantern mantles, and I had a jar of pure sulfur, which, by the way, glows a very nice blue color when set on fire, and I had a bowl of lead shavings that I didn’t set on fire but I did manage to melt it, which is impressive since its melting point is 327.5 degrees Celsius, and my grandfather gave me a jar of mercury which was already melted since it’s a liquid at -40 degrees Celsius, and I discovered the spare freezer in the basement didn’t get that cold.
And then I got to take chemistry in school which wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be–I didn’t get to set anything on fire, but we did have to pick an element from the periodic table and write a report on it, and I was fully prepared. I picked ytterbium. I’d never gotten a sample of it, but I’d read about it. This was before there was an internet so I had to rely on an old set of encyclopedias my parents had that were so old they listed Cleveland as both a major Ohio city and the current president. I learned that ytterbium had the atomic number 70 and a melting point of 824 degrees Celsius, which was probably more than I could manage in the basement garage, and my favorite part was that, at the time, it had absolutely no commercial uses, which made it hard to fill out a report, so I made up some stuff about how it likes to stand around awkwardly at parties nibbling appetizers and waiting for the ball to drop. I managed to get a good grade on it too, which was good because I was fully prepared to get out of class by setting my paper on fire.
And now here’s a famous song about the elements, originally by Tom Lehrer, updated for 2019 by the very funny Helen Arney.

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15 Comments

  1. Allison

    I remember very little about Chemistry, except that one day, we did something with Oleic Acid, and I speculated that’s what Oil of Olay came from. When in doubt, make a joke:

    Johnny was a chemist’s son,
    but Johnny is no more.
    What Johnny thought was H2O was H2SO4

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It wouldn’t surprise me if oleic acid were used in Oil of Olay, but a quick search says otherwise. That poem about Johnny, though, reminds me that I did experiment with some H2SO4 which I extracted from a battery. Fortunately I knew better than to drink it, but I did mix it with galvanized steel to make hydrogen gas which I caught in a balloon and then blew up.

      Reply
  2. Tom

    I was in chemistry class when the Challenger exploded. That and working on a comic book with Mike Nagata are the only two things I remember about the class. I was a terrible student.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      The explosion of the Challenger was probably the most exciting thing that happened in your chemistry class. Funny thing: I was out of school that day because they were holding parent-teacher conferences.

      Reply
  3. kunstkitchen

    This story is hilarious. Thanks for stopping by my kitchen. Happy New Year.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m so glad you stopped by and enjoyed it!

      Reply
      1. kunstkitchen

        A pleasure to read.

        Reply
  4. SkyeEnt

    I quite liked chemistry until I started studying it at college, where I discovered there were much more interesting things to do than study…I had ‘Disaster Area’ written large on the back of my lab coat as I felt it was only fair to warn the other lab users. I’m thinking of getting back into it in a witchy alchemical way though – lots one can do with plants and a distilling set perhaps.
    SkyeEnt recently posted…Making a wreathMy Profile

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      In retrospect it’s probably better that my high school chemistry class didn’t give me access to anything potentially dangerous–by which I mean pretty much anything. I think I could start a fire with water. Witchy alchemy, on the other hand, sounds like a very interesting and potentially useful pursuit.

      Reply
  5. Ann Koplow

    My son Aaron got a book about the elements for Christmas. And I love all the elements of this post.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’d love to know what book Aaron got. There are many excellent books about the elements out there, although The Disappearing Spoon is a particular favorite of mine.

      Reply
  6. Arionis

    It sounds like you and I did a lot of similar experiments with our chemistry sets.
    Arionis recently posted…Things Not Groin The Way I HopedMy Profile

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Boys will be boys, I guess, and I’m not surprised the first thing we both did with our chemistry sets was try and figure out how to blow stuff up.

      Reply
  7. mydangblog

    Did you ever make one of those volcanoes? I always wanted to do that but I never took chemistry. I love that song–Jim Parsons did part of it on “Big Bang Theory” once but the whole thing is terrific!
    mydangblog recently posted…My Flash Fiction in The Sirens CallMy Profile

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I made several volcanoes, actually–I had a lot of fun mixing potassium permanganate and glycerine. Since you can get both at the local pharmacy I think you should try it now as an adult. So what if you didn’t get to do it in school?

      Reply

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