Mystery of Matter explores chemistry in a fascinating way

"The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements" traces the history of chemistry. It will air Wednesday on WHYY TV12.

Documentaries about science don't really make for ratings winners. Those that are produced seem to focus on a few popular topics - evolutionary biology, medicine, astronomy. Chemistry seems left out in the cold.

PBS hopes to change this ugly situation with The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements, a superb three-part documentary about the history of chemistry. It airs in one marathon sitting from 8 to 11 p.m. Wednesday on WHYY TV12.

Narrated by Michael Emerson, best known for playing crime-fighting genius Harold Finch on CBS's Person of Interest, The Mystery of Matter provides a historical survey of chemistry from its birth as a distinct scientific field in the 17th and 18th centuries to the establishment of the famous periodic table and the discovery of radioactivity and the existence of subatomic particles.

The series and its accompanying website and educational materials were underwritten by three Philadelphia organizations: the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the Otto Haas Charitable Trust, and the Wyncote Foundation.

Directed by Muffie Meyer and Stephen Lyons (Benjamin Franklin, Forgotten Genius), The Mystery of Matter boasts terrific writing and dramatic reconstructions. It presents the story of chemistry through portraits of seven key figures: Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, and Humphry Davy in episode one; Dmitri Mendeleev and Marie Curie are covered in episode two; Harry Moseley and Glenn Seaborg wrap up the 200-year journey in episode three.

The series opens in the 18th century, when the alchemical research of a few frustrated magi trying to create gold gave birth to the scientific study of elements.

The first successes were in the identification of gases though the wide, varied, and sometimes ad hoc experimentation of Priestley, a theologian who loved fiddling in the lab. He discovered carbon dioxide and invented a most refreshing beverage, carbonated water. Priestley's work with oxygen - he found it helped combustion and allowed mice to live in an enclosed environment - was further refined and codified by Lavoisier, who coined the name oxygen.

Each hour of the series explores how the scientists expanded on the work of their predecessors and how new technologies such as the battery allowed them to make further discoveries about the structure of the world. (It was through the use of a battery that Davy was able to break water down into its constituent elements of oxygen and hydrogen.)

The second episode is by far the most exciting, telling the story of how Russian teacher Mendeleev came up with the periodic table by discovering the innate relationship chemical elements had to one another.

Educational, insightful, and pleasurable, The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements, is one of the best science documentaries in some time.

Television Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements

8 to 11 p.m. Wednesday

on WHYY TV12.


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