Saturday, August 29, 2015

PBS on Paternity Leave - The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements

Who doesn't love talking-head PBS documentaries about chemistry with lovingly recreated if not Oscar-worthy historical reenactments?

If you say "me, because I'm not a nerd enough to enjoy that sober," you're either A) lying, or B) shilling for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Probable motto: "stop pretending that you like the bitterness of beer or the sour acidity of wine and pour yourself another Cosmo or apple martini or black Russian."
As I've mentioned before, I've been watching TV while bouncing a small person on a pilates ball, as y-axis movement is the only thing that will soothe her. She doesn't care what I watch, which has enabled me to watch Get the Gringo, the November Man, Expendables 3, and the 2013 Russian Three Musketeers.
It's really weird to hear people who are supposedly French speaking fluent Russian. This must be what foreigners think about our versions of the Three Musketeers.
...and now The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements, a gem of educational television I want to recommend to all of you.
The show is a talky piece of infotainment of a form you may remember from high school anytime after 1970; scientists narrating the history of science intercut with actors in period costume.

Honestly, I forgot how much fun it is to follow along with the chemistry discoveries of 1700s-1900s, especially with reenactors and speaking lines only from the letters and books their historical personages wrote.
Priestley and Lavoisier (in reenactment) discussing the properties of then-unnamed oxygen gas. Madam Lavoisier, like Danaerys in Game of Thrones up-aged from her jailbaity actual age, is in the middle.
Back in the 18th Century, all you needed was some lab equipment and something of a disregard for personal safety and you could discover new elements. This is how Joseph (not Jason, as I kept mis-remembering) Priestley got oxygen from mercury calx. 
Joseph and Jason Priestley are easy to confuse, especially after that "discovering how to carbonate water" episode of Beverly Hills 90210.

Watching scientists do old-timey science (or, by the third episode, 20th century atomic science) is just plain fun, and it was really interesting for me to rediscover how the elements came to be identified, combined with reenactments of Dmitri Mendeleev's amazing Siberian beard. 

I expect this show to remain on PBS's website a little longer than Vicious as far fewer people are likely to want to spend their own money (as opposed to their school board's money) on it and Oregon Public Television is less interested in recouping their investment than ITV is with theirs. But it's on now, and worth a watch if you love science (which you do, because science is amazing). 

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