There are 118 chemical elements in the periodic table.
Only 102 of those had been discovered in 1959 when singer-humorist-satirist Tom Lehrer decided to squeeze all of them into a catchy, rapid-fire ditty called The Elements, sung to the tune of the Major-General's Song from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. If you can memorize the lyrics—yes, I'm hereby challenging you—you'll be halfway to an advanced knowledge of chemistry.
Only today did I happen upon a video of Harry Potter—that is, actor Daniel Radcliffe—singing The Elements on a BBC show. And quite well, I might add, if a bit too fast for a first-time listener to actually make out the names of bismuth, bromine and lithium, among others. If we were all still living at Hogwarts, of course, Harry's brainiac friend Hermione Granger would have been the one who had memorized the song.
Lehrer, whom Radcliffe calls "the cleverest and funniest man of the 20th century," was (and probably still is) an intellectual wizard. He earned a degree in math from Harvard at age 19, worked as a researcher at Los Alamos and taught at MIT. He gave up some of his edgier songwriting after Henry Kissinger was awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, a selection that Lehrer said made political satire obsolete. Anyhow, here is his original version of The Elements:
Football (Part II)
While we're on the topic of chemistry, you may recall that The Notebook successfully predicted the winners of the NFL conference championships games by analyzing the elements represented by each team's quarterback. Now we've reached the Super Bowl, with element number 12, magnesium, otherwise known as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (uniform number 12) facing element number 10, neon, otherwise known as New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (uniform number 10).
I'm encountering massive interference in my effort to predict a Super Bowl winner. Must be the recent solar eruptions, which caused the biggest radiation storm since 2005 (http://www.space.com/14319-huge-solar-eruption-sparks-radiation-storm.html). As you no doubt remember, Magnesium Brady and Neon Manning met in the Super Bowl three years after that 2005 radiation storm, and Neon won. But New England fans recall that the key play in that victory was a once-in-10-million-years event—an occurence that scientists say is exactly as statistically probable as a three-mile-in-diameter meteor hitting the Earth—on which a Giants player, David Tyree, caught a pass by pinning the ball against the top of his helmet.
The fact remains that magnesium is a strong structural metal with explosive qualities while neon is a non-reactive gas that needs an outside spark of electricity to shine. You don't have to be scientist to know that neon tends to glow brighter in big cities like New York than in humbler metropolises such as Indianapolis, site of this year's Super Bowl. Blame the solar flares (or the almost palpable Go Pats! atmospheric pressure squeezing in on me here in northern New England) if our reading on this is wrong, but the electrons in front of me are spelling out M-a-g-n-s-i-u-m B-r-a-d-y.
After seeing a news story that the Maine lobster catch last year exceeded 100 million pounds, Pamelia's brother Scott did some calculating and sent us a note:
"If 100,000,000 pounds of lobster were harvested in Maine last year, and if most lobsters are about 1 ¼ lbs., some larger, but the most of them are the 1 ¼ so, the average size may be about 1 ½ pounds. This means that roughly 66 million lobsters were taken from Maine waters last year. The population estimate for Maine in 2011 was 1,328,188 (people)... that means that just under 50 lobsters were taken for every resident!" It'll be interesting to see if next year's catch dips because too many were hauled in during 2011. In any case, it can be fun to more closely examine statistics cited in official reports and the media to see how the numbers really measure up.
Getting In Their Licks
It's winter, and life is hard for anything that lives outdoors here in New England. (Read Bernd Heinrich's fascinating book Winter World for a new appreciation of that.) So I can't blame the deer for lining up with the ducks, turkeys, squirrels, foxes and others for a turn at our scenically situated bird feeder. Is this happening to any of you?
Answers to the Last Puzzlers
1) The greatest altitude at which butterflies have been seen migrating is 19,000 feet.
2) The plant serviceberry got its name from American settlers because it blossoms at a time when the ground has thawed enough to allow burial services.
1) You don't have to sing the answer to this, but which element is the most common one in the universe?
2) Identify the animal shown below:
3) Back to the elements. I've always been curious about bismuth, which makes me think of both Bisquick and German statesman Otto von Bismark. Which of these best describes bismuth, element number 83:
a) a dense metal that doesn't have many commercial uses but is the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol
b) an alkali metal that makes up 40 percent of the Earth's crust and is prevalent in sea water
c) an inert gas produced by palm trees that for religious reasons is used to carbonate drinks in parts of the Middle East