Carbon Goes Wild! Periodic Table X-Rated : Krulwich Wonders... Imagine the periodic table as a playground of bullies, snobs and wallflowers, and you might memorize the elements overnight. Chemistry, after all, is about making and breaking bonds. It's about attraction and repulsion.
NPR logo Carbon Goes Wild! Periodic Table X-Rated

Carbon Goes Wild! Periodic Table X-Rated

H2O in a state of rage. Marie Curie Actions hide caption

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Time to party! We've got goodies to eat, music to dance to, the only odd thing is all the guests are chemicals. This is a Periodic Table party. Neon is here, but she's an incredible snob, doesn't like to touch. Hydrogen, with his dewy blue eyes, wants to hook up with anybody. Carbon -- well, Carbon is the hottest thing on the dance floor and can handle four partners at once...Go ahead, check it out...(you are, after all, mostly carbon based).

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This video was created to advertise a European community research & funding organization called Marie Curie Actions. It's aimed at young chemistry students -- and for good reason. Generations of budding scientists, including some of the greatest ones, learned chemistry by imagining the periodic table as a playground of sluts, bullies, snobs and wallflowers.

Explosive Reaction
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Chemistry, after all, is about making and breaking bonds. It's about attraction and repulsion. You can think of bonds as covalent, ionic or metallic, but it is just as easy to think of atoms cuddling or being ripped apart by a hydrogen with a ponytail or smashing a repulsive atom  into a plate of jello.

The great physicist Freeman Dyson says as a boy he would gaze for hours at the Periodic Table chemicals on display at a London museum, "thinking how wonderful it was that each of these metal foils and jars of gas had its own distinct personality."

Noble Gases
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Oliver Sacks, the great neurologist, says when he was a kid, he felt sorry for gases like Argon and Krypton and Neon. Their inability to bond with other chemicals (did you notice them not talking to anyone, looking bored?) reminded him of his own shyness, his inability to make friends.  "I think I identified at times with the inert gases," he wrote in his memoir Uncle Tungsten. He imagined them "lonely, cut off, yearning to bond."

Chemicals became his personal metaphors. He worried that like the element Xenon (one of the inert gases) his shyness might be innate. "Was bonding, bonding with the other elements, absolutely impossible for them?" he asked.

But a boy can dream.  Oliver Sacks describes teaching himself chemistry by imagining a series of unlikely romantic fantasies.

Might not fluorine, the most active, the most outrageous of the halogens -- so eager to combine that it had defeated efforts to isolate it for more than a century -- might not fluorine, if given a chance, at least bond with xenon, the heaviest of the inert gases?

Hear the music swell...

See the comic book version where Fluorine, her eyes batting furiously, throws herself at the bare-chested, arrogant Xenon…

And then…..

And I'm quoting Dr. Sacks:

…in the early 1960’s, I was overjoyed to hear….that the American chemist Neil Bartlett had managed to prepare such a compound -- a triple compound of  platinum, fluorine and xenon. Xenon fluorides and xenon oxides were subsequently made.

Ahhh…cue the sunset…watch  Xenon and Fluoride riding off together hand in hand (in hand, in hand) and hear Dr. Sacks thinking…"Yes!"

Oliver Sacks' memoir of a chemical boyhood is called Uncle Tungsten (2001). Natalie Angier's book, The Canon (2007), describes the importance of bonds in chemistry and includes this wonderful sentence: "Water may be the solvent of the universe, but carbon is the duct tape of life."