Elements explode at new science exhibition

Elements, a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in north London, is billed as a “spectacular night of chemical romance, intrigue and performance”. Not being the most studious when it came to science at school, I entered with some trepidation.

“We’re taking back the elements”, decried co-curator Andrea Sella.

The rooms were filled with four elements: arsenic, mercury, iodine and oxygen. Their conflicting properties – sometimes medicinal and at other times lethal - were put on show for our amusement as we basked in their beauty and cowered from their danger.

Co-curator, Hugh Aldersley-Williams author of the new book Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements said: “The project stemmed from my book Periodic Tales. The idea of the book was to offer a cultural companion to the elements to remind people that the elements belong to us all (and not to chemists behind closed laboratory doors). They are not ‘chemicals’ under the kitchen sink to be feared, but all around us and they account for all the delights of our senses.”

Andrea Sella, also a Professor of Chemistry at UCL, hopes the exhibition “highlights the fact that you can’t compartmentalise chemicals as good or bad.”

A quirky, yet perhaps a little screechy, musical medley signalled the beginning of an enlightening evening.

I started from the bottom up amongst Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection of artefacts from around the globe: paintings with pigments and dyes which were arsenic-based, medical equipment and even a mummified man from China.

Sir Wellcome’s vision was to create a space to house his collections and to enable the progression of medical science. This exhibition shows that vision is being realised.

Feeling a little overwhelmed we joined the queue for the oxygen bar. The average breath we take is just 21% oxygen – and falling. A nasal cannula connects you up to four bottles labelled ‘revive’, ‘head repair’, ‘blast’ and ‘detox’. Taking in a gulp of pure oxygen made me feel quite giddy and light headed.

Meanwhile, around the corner in the next room, I entered to hear Stefan Gates, self-styled gastronaut, food writer and TV presenter, tell the audience how he made a sponge cake from the E numbers in his body.

We then explored the multimedia installation created by artist Henny Burnett which uses candles burning oxygen, iodine halogen lamps, mercury vapour lamps and LEDs based on arsenic to create light.

On entering the library we heard pompous judges putting ‘Arsenic on Trial’ – an audience-participation production about courtroom action put on by Spectrum Drama. The audience were left to decide the validity of the accusations being levelled at arsenic. We were told that historical figures such as Napoleon, was poisoned by the wallpaper in his room. Although arsenic can be used in paints, when it reacts with moisture its vapour becomes toxic.

The only disappointing part of the exhibition was the “deadly pool of mercury”. In my head I had imagined a swimming pool, perhaps with sun loungers for full effect, but this was shattered at the sight of a small glass bowl, the size of which you would not even be able to dip your little finger in, let alone your toe. Although quite a misleading description, it was still an incredible sight to see the rippling beauty of this lethal element through the use of lasers.

The audience seemed satisfied: Imran Khan, a teaching assistant from Essex, said the exhibition was “lots of fun and makes you think about science in a totally different way”.

It was an extra special evening for Tom Heffernan, whose old science teacher, Andrew Szydlo presented ‘Comelis Drebbel and his Mystery Submarine’: “It was great to see Dr. Szydlo again - just as mad as ever! His talk was like a stream of consciousness as he ran through some high points in the history of natural philosophy before getting down to some experimenting. Releasing oxygen in pops and then burning phosphorus in pure oxygen to finish with smoke and bright white light.”

Professor Sella promised me “a tremendous evening” and that’s exactly what it was.