Elements explode at new science exhibition

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Executive - Hair & Beauty - OTE £25,000

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company supplies the ultim...

Recruitment Genius: Design, Marketing and Media Manager

£27000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: HR Assistant

£17447 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is a leading centre fo...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler is requi...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence