A mole day experiment

Recently, I performed an experiment.  Together with one of my faculty colleagues, a pair of chemistry students, and the historian for the Western Monroe Historical Society (who also happens to be my wife), we dressed up in Victorian-style costumes and told a story.

From left: Calli, me, Carly, Rozenn, Megan.

The story was about two Victorian-era scientists whose contributions to the field of chemistry continue to be profoundly influential on current and future discoveries.  One scientist was Dmitri Mendeleev, who is credited with discovering the periodic law that orders the elements.

The other scientist was Marie Curie, who left Poland to study in Paris and as a graduate student made the startling discovery that some elements spontaneously emit heat and light, a phenomenon she called radioactivity.

The writing of the story was influenced by two important sources.  One was a recent (2015) documentary from PBS on the discovery of the elements called the Mystery of Matter. The second was two hundred years older, a Chemistry textbook written by Jane Marcet.  Her writing style relied on conversations between a teacher and her two young pupils.  I modeled the story after Marcet’s approach to teaching chemistry and called it: “Conversations on Victorian Chemistry”.

Marcet’s book is driven by the questions posed by the two pupils.  In using female students, Marcet’s intent was to make the text more accessible to young girls who would otherwise not have had a chance to learn science.  In that vein, my two students played the roles of Sara and Suzanne Morgan, who were occupants of the Morgan-Manning House during the time frame that Mendeleev and Curie were making their discoveries.

Suzanne (left) was the younger daughter and in our play was portrayed as a bit of a rebel. Sara (right) often found her sister’s comments exasperating.

To tie the stories of the two scientists together, and help the audience with some of the more technical aspects of the play, Rozenn played the role of narrator.  She also controlled the video presentation which served as a classroom chalkboard and visual prop.

Rozenn not only held the story together with her narration, but provided tours to audience members while in costume. It was a treat for everyone.

In this story, Mendeleev tutors the Morgan girls on his discovery of the periodic law. He provided some insights into the messiness of scientific exploration and how imperative it was to bring order to the unruly garden of elements that existed during his time.

Mendeleev discovered the periodic law in 1869. Sara was 1 at the time and Suzanne was born that year. Our fictional story took place at a fictional time after Mendeleev’s discovery.

Marie was known for her ability to perform difficult measurements with accuracy and precision. She was unable to show the actual instruments used in her exploration of radioactivity and the discovery of radium (it was too cumbersome to travel from Europe with it). However, she did demonstrate experiments and tools similar to those that she used.

We had a big audience; almost 60 chairs filled the Morgan-Manning house parlor. It was pleasantly surprising to see such a varied audience, as both community members and students were in attendance.

A unique experience for both BoB and Carly, who typically lecture to an audience more focused on their smartphones than the performance.

We have no evidence of Mendeleev and Curie ever having met. However, it is unlikely that they would have gotten along. Curie disliked the Russians because of what they had done to Poland. Mendeleev was obstinately opposed to the concept of radioactivity, for he believed that elements were immutable. In our story, they at least came together to recognize the accomplishments of their students.

Curie and Mendeleev agreed to disagree … for now.

The results of this experiment were odd indeed, for it appears that when people dress up and share their enthusiasm for science and history, it elicits positive facial expressions.

Surprisingly, these facial expressions were exhibited prior to the audience’s viewing of the Periodic Table of Cupcakes. We had coffee and tea with the desserts in the Morgan-Manning dining room, decked out with nice teacups and silver serving pots. It took some prodding from our narrator for visitors to stop taking pictures and start eating cupcakes.

Chemists have a thing for displaying 10 dozen cupcakes in the shape of a periodic table. I wanted this display to stand out a bit from others and showcase the themes of the story: discovering the elements; an unruly garden that was becoming more ordered; and an appreciation for the importance of history. Instead of writing element symbols on the cupcakes, volunteer bakers were asked to bake whatever they wanted. These cupcakes were arranged randomly on a place mat, hiding the name of the element and an image representing when in history that element was discovered.

We held this program during National Chemistry Week, in particular on Mole Day. It’s a time when Chemists promote their profession and often conduct demonstrations for the general public. While nibbling on the elements, visitors were invited to explore a few DIY activities that showcase the aspects of scientific instruments used in the discovery of the elements.

I had been thinking about this story for quite some. As 2019 has been recognized as the International Year of the Periodic Table, I have been developing activities and projects based on celebrating Chemistry through this iconic image. I even had a paper published this year about 3D printing periodic tables. This play was the pinnacle of my celebration and now it’s time to get back to work. Before that, however, I have to thank Rozenn for being supportive and even enjoying our #TeamTechnetium events earlier in the year as we learned fun facts through IUPAC’s periodic table challenge.

The Morgan-Manning house was the perfect setting for an evening of Victorian Chemistry. If you are in Brockport, you should check it out.

All photos were taken by Shauna Zurowski. We also thank Gail Argetsinger in the Brockport theater department for assistance with the costumes. Refreshments, program setup and cleanup were all done by volunteers at the Morgan-Manning House (Mary Lynne, Margie, Barb, Julie, Christopher and John).

2 thoughts on “A mole day experiment

  1. How unusual and fascinating. Thank you for the summary and photos. I’m sorry we were out of town for what looked like a terrific event.

    • Thanks for checking out my summary. We certainly had fun and look forward to more Victorian chemistry programming opportunities.

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