Scribner Seminar Program
If the Elements Could Talk
Instructor(s): Steven Frey, Chemistry
Chemical elements are the simplest substances on Earth and form the basis for all matter, yet their presence in our lives and impact on our world are largely unrecognized. This course will unpack the periodic table in a way that gives life to the chemical elements and reveals the fascinating stories that they have to tell us about our history, culture, politics, health, and art. How did tungsten light up our nights and extend our waking hours? How did silicon upstage germanium to spark the information age? How is cadmium responsible for the once brilliant and now fading, orange hues in van Gogh’s paintings? We will consider these and other questions as we explore the periodic table, seeking to understand the “personalities” of the elements and their unique chemical properties that make them the centerpiece in stories that inform us about our humanity. In doing so, we will reflect on the passionate individuals who have discovered, explored, exploited, and/or written about the elements throughout history. We will also grapple the broader impacts of scientific knowledge, and consider how it is best communicated to the general public in ways that are both interesting and accessible.