The Periodic Table: Interpreting a Cultural Icon

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How many languages do you understand? You are fluent in more languages than you realize. There are ways we communicate that operate outside the confines of national tongues; through images, icons and symbols we exchange information. The following will assess the languages of art and science in their interpretation of a cultural icon.

As a former student of art history, we are often told to “read” works of art when interpreting a visual image. The process of “reading” works of art involves deliberately stepping back from your informed viewpoint to graduate through levels of interpretation. Informally, you first and foremost look, feel, and interact with works of art. What follows is your cultural, historical, and individual knowledge. There is, of course, a formal literacy to art, with vocabulary and practices agreed upon by experts.

“In a work of art, ‘form’ cannot be divorced from ‘content’: the distribution of colour and lines, light and shade, volumes and planes, however delightful as a visual spectacle, must also be understood as carrying a more-than-visual meaning.”
- Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968)

Those within the art community prescribe to this formalist methodology and read through the lens of an aspiring expert. Always keep in mind, the language of fine art has the ability to transcend this formalized reading process, you do not need expertise, anyone can read a work of art.

Science, on the contrary, is a language combining the semasiographic system of mathematics with the interpretation of the natural world. Its complex symbols and structured, ancient roots are passed down through generations of students, while those outside the field have a limited to forgotten understanding. Although not all signs and symbols are easily understood, science’s visual language affords the opportunity for popular culture to absorb its content, most notably: the double helix, pi, and the periodic table.

There are currently one hundred and eighteen uniform squares, each touching by at least one side, organized into eighteen columns and seven (to nine) rows. The gap you notice - between row seven and eight - separates the last two rows from the boxy u-shaped mass. In its simplest design, each of the one hundred and eighteen squares contains one to two letters in the style of the English alphabet, a numeral (1 to 118) and is grouped in shades of yellow, blue and red (Fig 2).

Figure 2: By Offnfopt

Figure 2: By Offnfopt

Figure 3: By Dmitri Mendeleev, 1869

March 6, 1869 Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev published his first version of the Periodic Table of Elements of eight groups, twelve rows, and sixty-six elements, granting blank spaces for undiscovered elements (Fig 3). The table transformed into several versions thereafter, but we continue to laud the importance of this scientific discovery, “[b]y arranging elements based upon their characteristics, the periodic table enabled scientists to understand the behavior of elements as members of collective sets” (Fechete 12). Over time, chemists applied changes to Mendeleev’s original table (whose predictions proved to be remarkably accurate) accounting instead for atomic weight and resulting in what we termed the “medium-long form” periodic table (Fig 2). Today we all recognize the horizontal medium-long form of the elements; each assigned a chemical symbol then organized by atomic number, electron configuration and chemical properties into groups and periods. Visually the table appears static, rigid, and dry. More-than-visually, it presents a universe of natural and synthesized elements represented by scientific symbols. I looked to the cultural value and visual representations of the periodic table, the icon.

I believe most individuals identify with the nostalgia of the periodic table, their high school chemistry class. Visual representations have pushed the periodic table from the classroom laboratory to everyday life. There started countless visualizations using icons to represent materials made from each element, a simple way to connect the scientific vocabulary with an artistic one (Fig 4). Individuals even turn this shape into wearable, hang-able, and digital mass productions available for you and yours to carry, display and identify oneself with the science-based cultural icon.

Others turn to bringing the personal into the periodic table, such as The New Yorker’s “Periodic Table of N.Y.C. Trash,” or a blog called Digital Inspiration’s “Periodic Table of the Internet,” where both created their own chemical symbols for each “element” of garbage found on the streets of New York, but kept the same style and composition of internationally recognized icon.

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Today you do not even need to see the letters and numbers of each element to recognize the periodic table, you know the medium-long form, horizontal shape represents the periodic table.

What happens when someone abstracts that recognizable cultural icon? Departing from the iconic medium-long form, it forces you interact with a familiar idea in a new way. Imagine you could experience this abstracted periodic table on a human scale, and encounter the foundation of our universe through sight and sound.

Delicate fiberglass rods gently hold hundreds of hand-cut Mylar petals that stack and twist to form eighty-three flowers, gradually increasing in size. If you move (too) close you see the intricate wavy shapes of each petal, then slowly widen your gaze to the flowers that rotate and glide to an expressive, seemingly-infinite garden. This garden looks familiar - my head tilts at the wide view of the installation - alluding to spiral galaxies and nautilus shells. In her studio basement, with dozens of sheets of Mylar, Rebecca Kamen spent three years developing, calibrating, and constructing Diving Nature: An Elemental Garden.

I met Rebecca Kamen on an inconveniently rainy day in one of my favorite coffee shops. Only a few blocks away and a few days prior I listened to her speak at the Science History Institute (formerly Chemical Heritage Foundation) where she discussed her research into the periodic table and the process to develop her piece Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden, with inviting energy and inspiring passion. The installation contains layers of signifiers - the form, size, color, and soundscape - that transport you to a celestial realm as Kamen wrote,

“Because gardens have always served both functionally and metaphorically as an intersection of art and science with nature, they are sites of transformation.”

The delicate fiberglass rods and mylar can breakdown to a molecular attention to detail, for “the number of holes and rods in each sculpture represents the atomic number of the element” (Newton). You begin with hydrogen as each element increases in scale, elevation, and complexity signifying the increase in atomic number. These milky white “atomic flowers” gently twist and turn as you nearly mistake them for clouds. Kamen describes the concept of these flowers as “inspired by the orbital patterns of the eighty-three naturally occurring Elements in the Periodic Table and their relationship to Plato’s view of Sacred Geometry.” An atomic orbital is a mathematical term describing the wave-like behavior of the electrons that surround the nucleus of the atom. The wavy petals of each cloud-like flower is a symbol meticulous enough for scientists and artists alike - both visually absorbing the same complex information, the behavior of atoms.

Kamen collaborated with architect, Alick Dearie to integrate the incremental elements and the Fibonnacci spiral into the installation space, an octagonal gallery at the Greater Reston Arts Center in Virginia.The Fibonnacci spiral is a pattern analogous with nature, as represented in the images below. In the GRACE gallery, the viewer sees the groupings of Kamen’s elements spiral from a central pillar to the floor climbing like a vine up a rectangular tree. Other viewings presented the Fibonnacci spiral immediately against a back wall then extended gently to the floor. In either experience the garden immerses the viewer in the mathematical and poetic beauty few knew possible of the once stark periodic table (Fig 5).

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Adding to this celestial garden is the ominous soundscape by bio-musician Susan Alexjander, who mathematically transformed the inaudible frequencies of atoms into a synthesized environment of sound. Everything that vibrates creates sound and to audibly experience the smallest unit of matter truly transforms science into art.


How does the language of art interact with that of science? Kamen’s multilingualism speaks to scientists, artists, and us,

“It’s been my observation that senior scientists are fascinated with the arts and humanities… it gives them a different lens to view their work, through aesthetics.” - Rebecca Kamen

Artists and scientists alike continue to underwrite the periodic system utilizing their respective languages to educate, enliven, and emphasize the continuity in the codification of elements. Some transformations surface to assist in the solution of practical issues concerning its identity and graphical representation.

Challenging the traditional two-dimensional, medium-long form provides a new perspective to a scientific breakthrough and cultural icon. Mendeleev developed a few (unsuccessful) spiral arrangements and scholars today discuss how the spiral form may have added to his predictions of elements. Although over the decades several chemists designed their own spiral arrangements of the periodic table, the medium-long form prevails.

Could our long lasting reliance on the two-dimensional forms of the periodic table be due to the predominance of the two-dimensional books and display surfaces? The rise of technology has drastically altered this former dependency on two-dimensionality. Science and art alike now have the opportunity to disguise their vocabulary and formalism in signs and symbols, visualize their work, and communicate with broader audiences.

“Science, like art, is intuitive.”
- Rebecca Kamen


References

Bernstein, Charles. "Disfiguring Abstraction." Critical Inquiry 39, no. 3 (2013): 486-97. doi:10.1086/670042.

Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden. Greater Reston Arts Center: The Business Press, 2009. Exhibition catalogue, 2019.

Fechete, Ioana. “Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev: The Sanctus Sanctorum of the art in the establishment of the first periodic table of the elements.” Comptes Rendus Chimie 19 (2016): 11-16. https://www.sciencedirect.com/

Garoian, Charles R., and John D. Mathews. "A Common Impulse in Art and Science." Leonardo 29, no. 3 (1996): 193-96. doi:10.2307/1576244.

Newton, Jennifer. “Unwitting Artists: Is there art in chemical structures and diagrams?” Chemistry World (2014). www.chemistryworld.org

Scerri, Eric R. “The Past and Future of the Periodic Table: This stalwart symbol of the field of chemistry always faces scrutiny and debate.” American Scientist, Vol. 96, No. 1 (January-February 2008): 52-58. Print. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27859088.

Scerri, Eric R. “Mendeleev’s Periodic Table is Finally Completed and What To Do about Group 3?” Chemistry International, Vol. 34 No. 4 (July-August 2012).

Spector, Tami I. “The Art of the Periodic Table.” Leonardo, Vol. 52, no. 3 (2019): 306-313. Print.

Storeygard, Adam. ""Greek Origami": A Sculpture Exploring the Golden Ratio." Leonardo 34, no. 3 (2001): 227-29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1576940.