It's elementary

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11 November 2013

The enjoyment of science has always been part of my life. Throughout my career, I have always found it useful to promote the value of science by drawing on science's far-reaching connections, such as the connections between science and our general welfare, science and history, and science and art. These linkages enable the message to reach a wider audience, making science more accessible or interesting. Twice a year at the American Center for Physics, the staff and colleagues of AIP, APS, AAPT, and AAPM get the opportunity to explore new connections in science and art with the opening of a new art exhibit. Two or three artists are invited to display their work in ACP's public space and introduce the exhibit personally during an opening night reception. On the evening of October 21, Langley Spurlock and John Martin Tarrat introduced their decade-long endeavor to present the elements to the public—in image and in verse. Langley brings appropriate training to this task, as a retired chemist with profound interest in all forms of artistic expression. His collaborator, Tarrat, is a retired advertising copywriter who has dedicated his post-career efforts to the art of poetry.

Their joint project, on display at ACP through April 11, 2014, shows a unique piece of art for a number of the individual chemical elements. They are more than 10 years into the project and have thus far depicted about 40 of the 118 elements, with a grand plan to create a unique piece for each of the 118 elements on the standard periodic table. Their first chosen element to enshrine was promethium, because its namesake, Prometheus, appealed to Tarrat’s poetic roots. From the start they recognized that some elements would be easy to represent because of their name, familiarity, and/or pedigree. However, they would face artistic challenges with about 50 obscure elements. The least attractive—the so-called “dogs” in the Spurlock-Tarrat classification scheme—are so rare and fleeting in existence that they serve little purpose except to fill up their anointed spot in Mendeleev’s table (at least, given our current knowledge of chemistry). To tap and hold the interest of their viewers, the artists prepare for exhibits by creating art for a balanced mix of elements, depicting the celebrities (i.e., gold, silver, etc.) with the familiar (i.e., oxygen, helium, etc.) with the “dogs.”

Dino graphicEach element-inspired piece involves a considerable collaboration between the two artists as they research its history, use, and connections to humanity. The end result is a dedicated haiku poem that is integrated with the imagery. The artists take great care in conceptually integrating the poems within the works; they are by no means simple captions.

Listening to Spurlock and Tarrat talk, it was clear to me that their project is clearly a labor of love and a learning experience for them and their audiences. From my point of view, it works as a connection between one of the first things that all students are exposed to in science—the elements that make up our world—and their history, technology, and utility, captured in image and verse. And there’s more to come. The artists forecast another decade before they have worked through all 118 elements . . . What a wonderful prospect.

To provide one form of closure, the artists asked 118 people to draw their impression of each element, and this montage is presently on display as homage to Mendeleev’s original layout of the elements. Please stop by ACP before April 11 and enjoy Spurlock and Tarrat’s exhibit, “Intersections: Secrets of the Elements.”