Volume 90 Issue 25 | p. 41
Issue Date: June 18, 2012

Grappling With The Elements

Documentary filmmakers explore the human side of the periodic table
By Jeff Huber
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Periodic table
Keywords: periodic table, documentary, film, elements, copper, Mike Paterson
Marc Isaacs' documentary "Oxygen: The Old Man and His Bed" focuses on Bob, a former ballet dancer who has grown completely reliant on his oxygen tank after years of smoking.
Credit: 94 Elements
Bob, bedridden after years of smoking, serves as the protagonist of the 94 Elements documentary “Oxygen.”
Credit: 94 Elements

The movie opens on a dark room at night. Bob, a former ballet dancer with a respiratory illness brought on by years of smoking, lies bedridden. Oxygen tubes descend from his nose and stand out against his gaunt face. It looks like a scene from an after-school special decrying the evils of tobacco. But it’s not. Rather, this scene sets the tone for British documentarian Marc Isaacs’ “Oxygen: The Old Man and His Bed.” The film is one of several produced for the ambitious 94 Elements project, in which filmmakers are creating short documentaries tackling each of the periodic table’s first 94 elements, from hydrogen to plutonium.

A group of teenage Indian boys dissolve secondhand circuit boards in vats of nitric acid in "Copper: Acid and Dust," directed by Mike Paterson. The illegal practice, which generates the pollutant nitrogen dioxide, makes it possible for the boys to extract copper and other metals, which they then sell to nearby factories.
Credit: 94 Elements

The project is an opportunity for notable filmmakers, such as British Academy of Film & Television Arts award winner Issacs, to explore the human side of the periodic table. “We don’t pitch it as a science project,” says 94 Elements project director Mike Paterson. “We pitch it as a project of human stories.”

So far three other documentaries have joined “Oxygen” in this exploration of mankind’s relationship with the chemical elements. “Copper: Acid and Dust,” directed by Paterson, tells the story of a group of teenage Indian boys who, having left behind the agricultural practices of their rural state of Bihar, now harvest discarded electronic circuit boards for copper and other metals. “Germanium: The Eye Clinic,” also directed by Paterson, explores New Delhi’s Venu Eye Institute & Research Centre, where germanium coats the lenses of surgical microscopes used in cataract surgery. And “Gadolinium: The Scan”—directed by Nino Kirtadze, winner of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Directing Award for a documentary—tells the story of a patient who, having been administered a gadolinium contrast agent prior to undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging scan, nervously waits for an orthopedist to evaluate his MRI images.

The chemical element coats the lenses of the surgical microscopes used by optometrists to perform cataract surgery in "Germanium: The Eye Clinic," directed by Mike Paterson.
Credit: 94 Elements

To keep the films coming, Paterson has set up a website to serve as a hub for 94 Elements. There, filmmakers can pitch ideas for their own documentaries, and contributors to the 94 Elements’ online fund-raising campaign, which ends on June 25, can vote on the ideas they like best. The website also features the Mix Lab, an interactive dashboard in which visitors can unlock hidden films about chemical compounds by identifying the elements that make up those compounds. By selecting sodium and chlorine, for instance, visitors can watch the trailer to “Salt,” a documentary chronicling photographer Murray Fredericks’ visit to the Lake Eyre salt flats of Australia.

According to Pat­erson, the website is currently in a beta stage, and the hope is to update it so that films are housed within a dynamic version of the periodic table that provides data related to the commodity prices and recycling rates of particular chemical elements. This periodic table will also link to information concerning those elements’ overall global abundance. Paterson hopes that such a design will help people reflect on the ways in which they use the many finite resources around them. “Just getting people to think about where all this stuff comes from and what we do with it once we’ve used it, in a very playful and creative way, is the ultimate aim of it,” Paterson says. “The key word is sustainability.”

Levan, a man from Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia, carries around cryptic images from his MRI scan in Nino Kirtadze's "Gadolinium: The Scan." Gadolinium was administered to Levan as a contrast agent prior to his MRI scan.
Credit: 94 Elements

This deferential attitude toward nature has shaped 94 Elements from the start. It was working from the premise that there are 94 naturally occurring elements that led Paterson to limit the size of his project to the first 94 elements. Paterson recognizes that the logic behind this decision is not without controversy, given that the number of naturally occurring elements is a point of contention among chemists. Paterson maintains, however, that the most debatable of natural elements to be covered by 94 Elements—including technetium, element 43; promethium, element 65; neptunium, element 93; and plutonium, element 94—exist in at least trace amounts in nature and possess interesting uses worthy of exploration.

To complete this cinematic journey, Pat­erson anticipates releasing his project’s 90 remaining films over the next two to three years. It’s a quick turnaround for sure, but such a prolific effort is not without precedent. In 2008, for instance, a team led by chemistry professor Martyn Poliakoff at the University of Nottingham, in England, released the Periodic Table of Videos, a collection of short films that explored all 118 elements. What’s more, Paterson says, 94 Elements has garnered a lot of momentum-building support from the chemistry community. “What the project is trying to do in drawing out the way that chemistry underlies everything,” he says, “has gotten a fantastic response from chemists.”

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