To mark the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, scientists have recorded an updated version of ‘The Elements’ song by musical satirist Tom Lehrer.
The original — which is sung to the tune of the ‘Major-General’s Song’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ — covers the elements up to Nobelium.
The revised ditty from tech firm Digital Science adds the 16 elements that were discovered subsequent to the writing of the original lyrics in 1959.
New additions include the short-lived, laboratory-synthesised chemicals Seaborgium, Livermorium and Oganesson.
To give voice to the revised lyrics, Digital Science recruited 118 members of the scientific community to contribute film of themselves singing the element names.
The building blocks of chemistry, elements are types of atoms that make up all ordinary matter — and are distinguished by the number of protons in their atomic nucleus.
The first recognisable version of the Periodic Table of the Elements — which helps to derive relationships between the properties of different elements and predict those of new ones — was drawn up by Russian Chemist st Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869.
Since then, the table has been repeatedly revised to accommodate new discoveries as our understanding of chemistry has grown.
‘At the time Lehrer wrote his version, there were only 102 elements,’ Digital Science’s Suze Kundu, who coordinated the updated recording, told The Times.
In fact, the end of his song acknowledges this, using the lyrics ‘These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard; And there may be many others but they haven’t been dis-cah-vard.’
‘When he performed the song in 1967 in Copenhagen, he mentioned the discovery of Lawrencium since writing the lyrics to the original song,’ added Dr Kundu.
Like Lawrencium, another 15 elements have been added to the Periodic Table in the decades since ‘The Elements’ was composed.
The majority of these do not appear to exist in nature — instead they were created by bombarding atoms into each other in particle accelerators.
Typically, the new additions can be created only in minuscule quantities — and are unstable, decaying into other elements shortly after their formation.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, scientists have recorded an updated version of ‘The Elements’ song by musical satirist Tom Lehrer
For example, only 90 atoms of Flerovium — the 114th element, first discovered in 1999 — have ever been observed, with its most stable isotope (variant) only having a half-life (the time it takes for half of it to decay) of around 1.9 seconds.
Given this, few of the periodic table’s more recent entries have yet found practical applications.
‘It may be that we don’t know yet what to do with these elements, or how they will be useful. But they are important and fascinating; history tells us blue sky research matters,’ Dr Kundu told The Times.
WHICH ELEMENTS ARE NEW?
When Tom Lehrer first composed ‘The Elements’ in 1959, only 102 elements were known to science.
To mark the end of the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, researchers led from tech firm Digital Science have recorded the ditty, updating the lyrics to include the 16 elements discovered since the song’s first recording.
These additions to the periodic table include:
|#||Element||Year||Method of discovery|
|103||Lawrencium||1961||First prepared by bombardment of californium with boron atoms|
|104||Rutherfordium||1969||Bombardment of californium with carbon or plutonium with neon|
|105||Dubnium||1970||Bombardment of californium with nitrogen or americium with neon|
|106||Seaborgium||1974||Prepared by bombardment of californium with oxygen atoms|
|107||Bohrium||1981||Obtained by bombarding bismuth with chromium|
|109||Meitnerium||1982||Prepared by bombardment of bismuth with iron atoms|
|108||Hassium||1984||Prepared by bombardment of lead with iron atoms|
|110||Darmstadtium||1994||Prepared by bombardment of lead with nickel|
|111||Roentgenium||1994||Prepared by bombardment of bismuth with nickel|
|112||Copernicium||1996||Prepared by bombardment of lead with zinc|
|114||Flerovium||1999||Prepared by bombardment of plutonium with calcium|
|116||Livermorium||2000||Prepared by bombardment of curium with calcium|
|118||Oganesson||2002||Prepared by bombardment of californium with calcium|
|115||Moscovium||2003||Prepared by bombardment of americium with calcium|
|113||Nihonium||2003||Prepared by decay of moscovium / bombardment of bismuth with zinc|
|117||Tennessine||2009||Prepared by bombardment of berkelium with calcium|
Before setting out to re-record ‘The Elements’ and recruit fellow scientists to sing the lyrics, Dr Kundu sought permission from Mr Lehrer, a former mathematics lecturer.
While the now reclusive lyricist assented to the recording, he reportedly declined to lend his voice to the endeavour.
‘I did ask him if he wanted to be an element in it. He said his favourite name for an element was “Pandemonium” and there’s a lot of that around these days. Which was a lovely way of declining,’ Dr Kundu told the Times.
Pandemonium — from the Greek for ‘hell’ — was the name originally suggested in 1944 for the element Americium. Its discoverers at the University of California, Berkeley, were acknowledging the challenge experienced in isolating their creation.
The revised ditty from tech firm Digital Science adds the 16 elements that were discovered subsequent to the writing of the original lyrics in 1959. These additions to the periodic table include the laboratory-synthesised chemicals Seaborgium, Livermorium and Oganesson
Dr Kundu said that — in order to edit together the 118 different voices contributing to the vocals — she had to slow down the originally rapid-paced tune.
‘I hope I haven’t massacred it,’ she told the Times.
As much as she enjoyed bringing the song up-to-date with modern discoveries in chemistry, she hopes another revision won’t be needed soon, she added.
‘Give me five years until [chemists] find a whole new bunch of elements — I’m not sure I could do this again for a while.’
The release of Digital Science’s new version of the elements song follows on from a similar effort by science communicator Helen Arney, arranger Alan Gout and Chemistry World magazine, to the accompaniment of the Waterbeach Brass Band.
HOW WAS THE PERIODIC TABLE CREATED?
Chemists have always looked for ways of arranging the elements to reflect the similarities between their properties.
The modern periodic table lists the elements in order of increasing atomic number – the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom.
Historically, however, relative atomic masses were used by scientists trying to organise the elements.
This was mainly because the idea of atoms being made up of smaller sub-atomic particles – protons, neutrons and electrons – had not been developed.
Nevertheless, the basis of the modern periodic table was well established and even used to predict the properties of undiscovered elements long before the concept of the atomic number was developed.
Ask most chemists who discovered the periodic table and you will almost certainly get the answer Dmitri Mendeleev.
The Russian scientist was the first to publish a version of the table that we would recognise today, in 1869, but does he deserve all the credit?
A number of other chemists before Mendeleev were investigating patterns in the properties of the elements that were known at the time.
The earliest attempt to classify the elements was in 1789, when Antoine Lavoisier grouped the elements based on their properties into gases, non-metals, metals and earths.
Several other attempts were made to group elements together over the coming decades.
In 1829, Johann Döbereiner recognised triads of elements with chemically similar properties, such as lithium, sodium and potassium, and showed that the properties of the middle element could be predicted from the properties of the other two.
It was not until a more accurate list of the atomic mass of the elements became available at a conference in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1860 that real progress was made towards the discovery of the modern periodic table.
This area of the website celebrates the work of many famous scientists whose quest to learn more about the world we live in and the atoms that make up the things around us led to the periodic table as we know it today.
Source: The Royal Society of Chemistry