In 1959 the mathematics lecturer and musical humourist Tom Lehrer wrote a song titled ‘The Elements’. The song refers to the chemical elements, the ones that are classified in the periodic table. The opening lines are “There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminium, selenium; And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and helium”. Sung to the tune of the Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance, ‘The Elements’ has popped up in all sorts of places since it was composed. There have been many other attempts to popularise the chemical elements since 1959 including giving them personalities, showing them in action and translating them into art works. These efforts are educational, entertaining and worth further examination.
One of the most magical pieces of elemental music I have heard is the air escaping from Arctic glacial ice as it was melted by the sun. Very subtle, calming, beautiful and quite a surprise. Who would have thought of musical ice? I hadn’t until I experienced it directly.
What would you say if asked “what does ‘the fifth element’ bring to mind”? For many in the west, quintessence would be the answer. Or alternatively the 1997 movie “The Fifth Element”. This story is set in the twenty-third century, when the universe is (still) threatened by evil. The only hope for mankind is the Fifth Element, who comes to Earth every five thousand years to protect the humans with four stones of the four elements: fire, water, earth and air.
If you have you ever wondered how many Apps make reference to the elements then you’ve come to the right place! It is a question I’ve asked myself in my quest to discover how the elements are portrayed in popular culture. Here is where I’ve got to so far with the answer.