‘Periodic tales’: what the chemical elements remind us about education

As part of this year’s uplifting Oxford University Alumni Weekend, a panel of speakers led an engaging session inspired by Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ new book, ‘Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements’. The author himself spoke, and explored how artists, sculptors and poets across the ages have used the elements, imbuing them with meaning and significance. This meaning, it became fascinatingly clear, has not been attributed arbitrarily, and the talk highlighted how intrinsically linked this meaning was with the scientific properties of the chemicals themselves: their scarcity or abundance, for instance, as well as their reactivity and their origins.

These links run strong and deep: the scientific qualities of elements enhance the cultural, and vice versa. This is why, for instance, Anthony Gormley’s sculpture, Fuse 2011, speaks to us so powerfully: cast in iron – a component of human blood – and rusted red, this image of a man lying face down is striking and visceral. His faceless, largely featureless contours are marked by the flat, angular facets of a metallic element which circulates within us and upon which we depend – in this sculpture, the hidden element is exposed, and magnified so that the form is no longer human and yet still recognisably so very human. This is science and art fused in a single, meaningful whole, which is undeniably greater than the sum of the individual parts.

In essence, the talk served to introduce a holistic perspective of the chemical elements, and the audience was encouraged to see the chemical elements through the lens of art and literature, and as an integrated part of our cultural understanding. The book sits behind an imminent curated exhibition at Compton Verney, near Stratford-upon-Avon; with pieces by Anthony Gormley, John Constable, Thomas Heatherwick and Eduardo Paolozzi, amongst many others, this intriguing exhibition sounds as though it will be well worth the effort to visit it.

What was so interesting about the talk – and the concept behind both book and exhibition – is a process of thinking which we would be wise to apply to other contexts where we seek learning and enlightenment. The session took place in a lecture theatre dominated by a large printed copy of the periodic table as we are used to seeing it, with the elements neatly separated out into rows and columns. By drawing them out and categorising them over years of work, we have understood them better; the words and pictures of the talk being conducted in the shadow of this table, however, encouraged us to think about fusing these understandings back into the complex and integrated worlds which we inhabit – physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual. It is as if we were witnessing the extraction of an element from its source, followed by its examination and finally its reintegration into a functioning, living role. As a result of this process, we were better able to understand, appreciate and fundamentally to know the element – and its scope and potential. Each element may have an identifiable individual existence of its own, but it has a greater existence as part of a larger and more complex whole. When we realise and embrace this, we gain new insights and our understanding grows and deepens – sometimes immeasurably.

Education systems are generally very good at the extraction and examination of substances, thoughts, ideas, events, processes; school and university examinations and assessments depend on this forensic dissection. Education systems are sometimes less good at the process of reintegration, of recognising that individual elements have a greater purpose as part of a larger universe. As the ‘Periodic Tales’ remind us, we miss out – and may indeed miss the point entirely – when we overlook this.


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